Here’s how Ro­mans dealt with of­fi­cials’ travel abuses

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - VIEWS & VOICES - CATHER­INE RAMPELL re­ally ——— Cather­ine Rampell is a columnist with The Wash­ing­ton Post. Her col­umn will run here Fri­days as Charles Krautham­mer is on ex­tended leave.

At least seven Cabi­net-level of­fi­cials, and a smat­ter­ing of aides, ap­pear to have abused their ac­cess to pub­licly funded travel. Col­lec­tively, th­ese bu­reau­crats billed tax­pay­ers for mil­lions of dol­lars worth of pri­vate jets, mil­i­tary flights, spousal travel and other ques­tion­able ex­penses. Yet so far just one of them, for­mer health and hu­man ser­vices sec­re­tary Tom Price, has been forced to step down.

The White House ar­gues that while Price may have mis­be­haved, there is plenty of prece­dent for such ex­trav­a­gant govern­ment travel. And the ad­min­is­tra­tion is right. Govern­ment of­fi­cials were abus­ing travel bud­gets long be­fore Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump came on the scene. Like, a long time be­fore Trump — we’re talk­ing an­cient Rome here.

So maybe ex­am­in­ing how Ro­man em­per­ors dealt with the prob­lem can of­fer in­sight into how to deal with it now. Dur­ing the Ro­man Em­pire, govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives trav­el­ing on of­fi­cial busi­ness used a state-au­tho­rized trans­porta­tion sys­tem, called “ve­hic­u­la­tio.” They re­ceived spe­cial travel passes (called “diplo­mata,” and is­sued by em­per­ors or gov­er­nors) that al­lowed them to req­ui­si­tion carts, horses, food, lodg­ing and guides from pro­vin­cial pop­u­la­tions along their route. Lo­cals were usu­ally com­pen­sated at set rates. But oth­er­wise, “the rules var­ied from prov­ince to prov­ince, re­in­forced or mod­i­fied over time as gov­er­nors and em­per­ors saw fit,” said Hunter Col­lege clas­sics pro­fes­sor W. Gra­ham Clay­tor, an ex­pert in Greco-Ro­man doc­u­ments. In prac­tice, this led to a lot of abuse.

Pub­lic of­fi­cials took per­sonal trips dis­guised as work trips. They spent, and ex­tracted from lo­cals, much more than they re­ally needed. They seemed in­dif­fer­ent to the hard­ships cre­ated by their profli­gacy and obliv­i­ous to more pro­duc­tive uses for the scarce tax­payer re­sources they were gob­bling up.

Sound fa­mil­iar? Con­sider a pe­ti­tion from the vil­lagers of Skap­topara in Thrace (to­day Bla­go­ev­grad, Bul­garia), sent to Em­peror Gor­dian III in A.D. 238. The vil­lage, renowned for its hot springs, was lo­cated between two army camps and a fa­mous mar­ket. Vil­lagers com­plained that sol­diers “leave their proper routes” to stay in their town, where the sol­diers de­manded hos­pi­tal­ity and pro­vi­sions “free of charge.” Gov­er­nors and other of­fi­cials also fre­quented the town, fur­ther bur­den­ing lo­cals. Vil­lagers warned the em­peror that the abuses might force them to pick up and leave — and take their tax dol­lars with them:

“If we are weighed down, we will flee our homes and the trea­sury will suf­fer the great­est loss.”

In other an­cient cor­re­spon­dence, of­fi­cials tried to ex­pand their al­ready-gen­er­ous travel perks.

In one let­ter, Pliny the Younger (gover­nor of Bithy­nia and Pon­tus in A.D. 110) used flat­tery to jus­tify a travel pass he had re­cently is­sued to his wife, even though she was trav­el­ing on a pri­vate mat­ter.

It was for fa­mil­ial piety, Pliny ex­plained; surely the benef­i­cent Em­peror Tra­jan would un­der­stand. Tra­jan replied that he did.

When em­per­ors or gov­er­nors did get mad about such abuses, some­times they is­sued fi­nan­cial or other penal­ties. Of­ten enough, though, the re­sult was an­other edict re­mind­ing of­fi­cials to please, please fol­low the rules — and stop mak­ing the govern­ment look bad!

Here’s one, from Mar­cus Petro­n­ius Mamert­i­nus, pro­vin­cial gover­nor of Egypt, dated A.D. 133-137:

“I have learned that many sol­diers, trav­el­ing through the coun­try­side with­out a di­ploma, un­justly de­mand boats, bag­gage an­i­mals, and men, some­times tak­ing things by force, some­times re­ceiv­ing them from the lo­cal gov­er­nors as a fa­vor or ser­vice. As a re­sult, pri­vate ci­ti­zens suf­fer in­sults and abuse, and the army is ac­cused of greed and in­jus­tice. There­fore I com­mand once and for all that the lo­cal gov­er­nors and their lieu­tenants fur­nish none of the things given for es­cort to any­one with­out a di­ploma, nei­ther to those go­ing by boat nor those trav­el­ing on foot. I shall forcibly pun­ish any­one who, af­ter this procla­ma­tion, is caught ei­ther tak­ing or giv­ing any of the things spec­i­fied.”

You can find many sim­i­lar edicts is­sued across cen­turies. Which shows the re­cur­ring prob­lem of travel-re­lated cor­rup­tion and abuse. Why wouldn’t this prob­lem go away? Be­cause, as scholar Russell S. Gen­try has ar­gued, rulers pre­ferred to cast bad be­hav­ior as iso­lated in­ci­dents rather than sys­temic flaws in an em­pire that treated provin­cials as un­im­por­tant and af­forded govern­ment elites scant over­sight. Just as, say, Trump might pre­fer to cast a jet-set­ting for­mer health sec­re­tary as a bad ap­ple not “rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the spirit of his ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Clay­tor ob­serves. It took cen­turies for Ro­man em­per­ors to re­al­ize they needed to make real, sys­tem-wide changes if they hoped to curb the wan­ton abuse of tax­payer re­sources. How long will it take Trump?

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