Your parents likely taught you that just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. The letter of the law doesn’t define morality in our daily lives.
That’s a lesson that seems to have slipped by U.S. Rep Steve Watkins, who is exploiting changes in House of Representatives rules to promote President Trump (and by extension himself) with taxpayer-funded communications. To be sure, the practice is an old one, called franking, and lawmakers usually restrain themselves.
But Watkins has pushed the limits.
According to The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter, “In the three-month period from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, federal reports say, Watkins spent $149,000 on franking. That was three times franking expenditures by each of his two Kansas Republican peers in Congress and five times the total for the state’s Democrat in the U.S. House.”
And that was before the rules changed.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi changed rules in January, and then the coronavirus-focused CARES Act threw open the door even further. The intent is to allow congressmen and congresswomen to communicate with constituents about the virus.
Watkins — who, remember, benefited in 2018 from a father-financed campaign and personal story that stretched credulity — has jumped headfirst into the loophole.
As Carpenter writes: “In Watkins’ most recent radio advertisement, which has been running on KMBZ-AM radio in the Kansas City market and KMAJ-AM in Topeka, the congressman was mentioned nine times and President Trump five times. The text of the ad used the word coronavirus three times and the word pandemic twice.”
None of this is a mystery. Watkins has had a tumultuous term, defined by various less-than-flattering escapades -- from where his legal residence is located to rumors about an imminent resignation. He now faces a formidable primary opponent in state treasurer Jake LaTurner.
The primary is in less than three months, so the temptation to follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit must be strong right now. But Watkins needs to step back and think about the people of Kansas. He needs to think about how he will be remembered, and why he ran for office in the first place.
This is bigger than him or his ambitions.
This is about a pandemic, about doing the best for his constituents and about doing the right thing. That’s not always about holding on to personal power at any cost.