Topic: Government & Politics

Ethics Truce?
(3/16/2004)

The Washington Post reports that the so-called "ethics truce" that has held sway in the House of Representatives for six years is threatening to come apart.

Ethics Scoreboard has two reactions:

  • Good!
  • What does it say about a legislative body when enforcing ethics rules is treated as warfare rather as than a bipartisan feature of honest government?

It is certainly true, as the front page Post article (March 16) notes, that the sheer volume of blatant ethical violations and shady-looking conduct by the GOP majority has reached an alarming level. Some have already been discussed in the Scoreboard, such as the high pressure tactics, bordering on extortion, allegedly used (unsuccessfully) to get Michigan Republican Nick Smith to change his vote on the prescription drug legislation.

Then there was the foiled attempt by House Majority Whip Roy Blount to slip a provision into the Homeland Security Bill that benefited the employers of his lobbyist girl friend (now wife.). Even House Speaker Dennis Hastert (whom the Post quotes as saying that the ethics process "works well!") was embarrassed by that one: he pulled the provision.

But the Democrats have their own vulnerable members, like the ethically clueless Jim Moran of Virginia. Moran has managed to accept financial assistance from a lobbyist and below market mortgage rates from a company opposing a House bill (which Moran dutifully voted against) without so much as a rap on the wrists. He is one of many representatives from both parties who have benefited from the craven suspension of ethics oversight spawned by fear of retaliatory complaints. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Post notes, has repeatedly refused to press ethics charges, and says she "doesn't think leaders should bring charges against lawmakers from the other party."

Hmmmm. Let us cogitate on that.

Pelosi says Democratic leaders shouldn't bring charges against Republicans. Some of the most egregious ethical violations appear to have come at the hands of the GOP high command, such as Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Blount, and Ohio Representative Michael Oxley, who chairs the House financial services committee and, according to the Post, who told an association that he would tone down a congressional investigation if it replaced its Democratic lobbyist with a Republican. (An aside: Oxley's name is on the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, which was supposed to show corporations, lawyers and accountants the way to openness, honesty, and accountability. Doesn't it occur to Oxley and his colleagues that unethical conduct by such a bill's sponsor undermines the bill's message, credibility, and effectiveness?)

So it is Pelosi's theory that we should expect junior representatives to police their party leaders, who can make sure their accusers serve out their terms on the Solid Waste Management Committee or its equivalent. Certainly that will keep the peace. It will also ensure that Congressional ethics get worse and worse.

If indeed that's possible.

Truce or no truce, the current venal culture in Congress makes real ethical oversight improbable.

Congress needs to pass its own Sarbanes-Oxley bill, but named for some congressman or congresswoman who has a clean ethics record (there must be some.) It should require thorough ethics training for new members, and mandatory ethics refresher courses for veterans. There should be a bi-partisan non-member committee to investigate all complaints, and it should include non-political members, such as attorneys and academics. The committee should accept complaints from citizens, watchdog groups, other branches of government, and members, and there should be a process that offers anonymity. Punishment for ethical violations should be harsh, and repeat violators should be expelled.

Only this system, or one similar, will have a chance of restoring integrity and openness to the House. Ethics Scoreboard has no illusions: absent a firestorm of public indignation of the magnitude that prompted the corporate Sarbanes-Oxley, nothing significant will change. The next best measure might be to actually require members to read their ethics manual (Yes, the House has one. Then again, so did Enron…) and sign a sworn statement stating they have done so, that they understand what they have read, and that they pledge to abide by all of it. You see, it contains provisions like these…

"A Member, officer, or employee of the House of Representatives shall conduct himself at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives. "

"A Member, officer, or employee of the House of Representatives shall adhere to the spirit and the letter of the Rules of the House of Representatives and to the rules of duly constituted committees thereof. "

"A Member, officer, or employee of the House of Representatives shall receive no compensation nor shall he permit any compensation to accrue to his beneficial interest from any source, the receipt of which would occur by virtue of influence improperly exerted from his position in the Congress. "


And also these…

Any person in Government service should:

"Put loyalty to the highest moral principals and to country above loyalty to Government persons, party, or department."

"Uphold the Constitution, laws, and legal regulations of the United States and of all governments therein and never be a party to their evasion."

"Give a full day's labor for a full day's pay; giving to the performance of his duties his earnest effort and best thought."

" Seek to find and employ more efficient and economical ways of getting tasks accomplished."

(The Manual is at http://www.house.gov/ethics/Ethicforward.html)

Having Mr. DeLay, Ms. Pelosi, Mr.Hastert, Mr. Moran, Mr. Oxley and Mr. Blunt read this document is at least a step in the right direction. Another step is for voters to read it. They won't find any mention of the word "truce."

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