Luxury should not be a perk of office
WHY DO South African taxpayers buy expensive homes for every cabinet minister and deputy minister?
The Cape Times has reported that the government paid R183 million for 34 new VIP homes in exclusive neighbourhoods of Tshwane and Cape Town. A total of 66 cabinet members are eligible for this perk.
Seven more fine houses near Cape Town were bought for R46m, at prices inexplicably 26 percent above market value.
A new guesthouse for the deputy president cost R93m.
Why are ministers and their deputies entitled to bring spouses and children on official trips at government expense, and to be paid for purely personal air travel – up to 30 trips a year, spouse included – in business class no less?
Even after they leave government service, according to the Ministerial Handbook, ministers are entitled to 48 business-class domestic flights every year. Their spouses are entitled to 24 trips, 18 for the spouses of deputy ministers. Ministers can be provided two official cars, plus an allowance for the purchase of a private car having no connection with their official duties. They are told to stay in hotels that “suit the status” of a minister.
The country with the world’s largest economy, the US, provides none of this. Its government’s highest officials, the cabinet “secretaries” who run the major agencies (there are only 15 of them) must find their own housing in Washington DC, and pay for it out of their salary.
Expenses are paid only for official business – not for personal travel, not for spouses or children, and not after departure from government service. And there is no entitlement to first-class anything – whether air travel, hotels or housing. If you are spending the public’s money, you are expected to spend as little as possible.
I knew a very fine gentleman who served US presidents in the highest of positions – as Secretary of Agriculture, as Secretary of Commerce, and as vice president of the US.
Through 14 years of service, his residence was a modest rental flat in Washington.
Even as vice president, he had no government car or security detail; he walked the 3.2km to his office at the White House, through the park, accompanied by his dog, Brutus.
That gentleman was my grandfather, who served under presidents Roosevelt and Truman. In the flat next to my grandparents lived Mamie and (future US President) Dwight Eisenhower. (This was while Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, so he wasn’t home much – though my father, at age 13, scared the hell out of Mrs Eisenhower one day when she came over for tea, by leaving his snake collection in the bathtub when she went to wash up).
The same apartment building was home to two other US vice presidents before and after my grandfather: those who served under Herbert Hoover (Charles Curtis) and Richard Nixon (Spiro Agnew), as well as the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Earl Warren, who had previously been Governor of California and a candidate for US vice president.
The man who succeeded my grandfather as vice president, Harry Truman, had lived for years in a modest rented flat nearby until he moved into the White House upon Roosevelt’s death.
The US did finally buy an official residence for the vice president, in 1974, for purposes of security – not status. But all other top officials in the federal government still must fend for themselves. And most live in very ordinary homes in ordinary neighbourhoods. For the vast majority of senior public officials, public service means a lower standard of living than they experienced before they entered government.
Sacrifice is expected, improving your own lifestyle is not.
This is not to say that American politics today is not awash in big money. Our political parties and politicians are massively dependent on contributions from corporations and wealthy elites. But the money flows not to individual politicians (that’s a crime), but to their election campaigns and to the parties – and the law places strict limits on the amounts of such contributions, and mandates public disclosure of contributors’ identities.
(The laws regulate only direct contributions to politicians and parties. Unfortunately, our Supreme Court is dominated by Republican appointees friendly to corporations.
And it has recently ruled that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence US elections, as long as they do it independently, rather than to or through a candidate or party.) Though the US still has much work to do to reduce the influence of money in politics, the system of strict regulation and disclosure has made a huge difference. It empowers the media and non-profit organisations to unearth scandals where huge contributions are traded for preferential treatment on matters of policy or government spending. Each federal agency has its own “inspector general”, insulated from political pressures by a fixed 15-year term, whose job is to make sure that no official uses their position to enrich or benefit themselves, family, friends or associates. Our federal prisons have housed many politicians and officials who ran afoul of these laws.
I don’t mean to suggest that American public officials do not find ways to benefit financially from their government service. Many have. Some go to work for corporations, trading on their political connections and knowledge of government. Some parlay their experience into nice incomes in law, academia or the media. Some write tell-all memoirs. But the benefits can only be reaped after – not during – government service.
During my six years as an American living in the land of Mandela, it has pained me to see the increasing cynicism about government’s stewardship of taxpayer resources.
When people worry that money meant to benefit the nation and the poor will be diverted instead to line the pockets of the rich and powerful, democracy is damaged. Trust can be hard to restore.
I would suggest that a good place to start restoring people’s faith in government is to rein in the perks of public office.
Taxpayers in any country need to be confident that their public servants are solely interested in serving the public interest, rather than improving their own income and material comforts.
To those who might worry that it is unfair to reduce the emoluments of office for sitting officials, I might point to another US example.
Once, when Americans grew angry that public officials were getting paid far more than ordinary citizens, the US Congress voted to significantly reduce salaries for senior officials, including the vice president, and for Members of Congress themselves. This was in 1874, and it helped establish the principle that public service should not pay better than private enterprise.
South Africa may be headed in the opposite direction.
A government spokesman recently insisted that it is “necessary” to provide ministers with residences that meet a “prestige standard”.
And now municipal councillors are seeking the same housing and other benefits as their counterparts at the national level.
The question is, do these perks help attract the right kind of people, or the wrong kind of people? Will the best and the brightest refuse public service if they don’t get free “prestige” housing and a lifetime of free business-class air travel for them and their families – all at the expense of the taxpayers they must swear to serve? Is this a necessary investment? Can the government think of nothing better to do with the billions of rands involved?
I’m proud of my grandfather’s humility and single-minded dedication to the common good. He would be happy to tell today’s politicians in America and elsewhere: if you want to get rich, go into business; if you want to serve the public, tighten your belt and get to work!
Wallace is an attorney and cochair of the Wallace Global Fund, a US-based charitable foundation, and grandson of US Vice President Henry A Wallace.
Why are expensive houses bought for South Africa’s ministers and their deputies? asks the writer.