Tuesday 12 January 2010

What to do?

An article in yesterday's Washington Post highlights the dilemmas that elected politicians and their families can face. John Dingell represents a district in Michigan - the home of the American auto industry. He has throughout his career (which began in 1956) advocated the interests of his district (as all of us would expect of our representative).

In 1979 he met Debbie Insley, who worked for GM Motors. They married in 1981. She did not go to work for Representative Dingell (a practice now being stopped in the UK & European Parliaments). Debbie Dingell voluntarily stepped down as a registered GM lobbyist. Representative Dingell said "Her instincts were good enough that she just assumed that wouldn't work, so she terminated that...I never had to raise it." In the Article she says "I stayed at GM so no one could say I got my job because of my husband." No doubt there are many firms who would have loved to have employed the wife of a senior congressman.

When the stock value of GM stock fell precipitously before it eventually declared bankruptcy, "Debbie Dingell was caught in a dilemma. Selling her stock earlier would have opened questions of whether she was motivated by insider information from her husband or her company. So she kept the stock as her husband fought to rescue GM -- and skeptics cast his actions as a battle to save their personal fortune.

"No matter what, people were going to say something," she said.

"Frankly, she rode that stock right into the ground," John Dingell said. "She did that because she had to." "

We expect higher standards of those in public life than we do of those in the private sector. The media who "expose" the actions of those in public service do not have to, nor do they, live by similar standards. Thomas Frank in his book "The Wrecking Crew" notes that the biggest houses in Northern Virginia do not belong to the politicians and public servants - but to the representatives of business. Sometimes those who have spent their lives serving the public face dilemmas in which they lose whatever they do.