Clunker candidates for Congress

Campaign 2010

At least four car dealers are running for the U.S. House of Representatives and at least three of them took "Cash for Clunkers" stimulus funds from the federal government. You might buy a car from these men, but would you vote for them?

Quick, can you name your local car dealers? There's a good chance you can because they spend lots of money on advertising and probably have good reputations in your community. In other words, successful car dealers make ideal candidates: name recognition, reputation, and big bank accounts to turbocharge their campaigns.

Congressional Quarterly-Roll Call, a newspaper that reports Capitol Hill news, noted that five car dealers have served in Congress over the past decade. Now we're in a new decennium with new ethical challenges for car dealers. Last year, Congress dangled federal money---Cash for Clunkers---in front of them and three of the dealers running for the House grabbed it, according to CQ-Roll Call.

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Ethical problem? Maybe. Political problem? Certainly.

You may recall that I chose not to take $4,500 from Cash for Clunkers when I traded in my conversion van. If asked, I'm certain my neighbors Andrea and Marv would not have chosen to buy me a new car with their tax dollars. But the federal government didn't ask, and we Americans parted with nearly $3 billion to put 680,000 new rides in driveways across this land.

It was an easy ethical decision for me. One car, big deal. But put yourself in the place of the dealers. If they didn't take the clunkers money, they would have been at a competitive disadvantage. Now there's an ethical bind. They may have known in their hearts that the program was wrong, but what's worse---taking the money or hurting their business and employees?

"We would have essentially been out of business the entire time," said Scott Rigell, who is running in Virginia's 2nd district. "I had no ethical problem whatsoever. I have a duty to the people who have worked with me for five, 10, 25 years." Rigell's Freedom Automotive dealerships received $444,500.

Mike Kelly, running in my district, Pennsylvania's 3rd, offered another outlook. "From a selfish standpoint, it helped us sell cars," said Kelly, whose dealerships received $625,500. "But from a national standpoint, it begs the question: Was this money well-spent?

Is Kelly asking the right question? Primary election voters---typically the most passionate and informed voters---are likely to be asking the clunker candidates, "Was the program constitutional?" Cash for Clunkers is not justified among the enumerated powers in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, thoughtful voters are likely to question whether they should vote for office-seekers who have a track record of pursuing corporate welfare and expanding the deficit.

Car dealers across the nation benefited from an ethically questionable law. Should the clunker candidates be held to a higher constitutional standard? Voters will decide next month.

Lee Wishing
Lee Wishing

Lee is the administrative director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.


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