October 2008 Ethics Dunces

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Republicans

A monster financial bailout bill, the result of hard compromises requiring each party to swallow a fair amount of unpalatable ingredients, passed the U.S. Senate and moved on to the House of Representatives. It could only be passed with bi-partisan co-operation, and, obviously, that would mean putting aside the usual partisan rhetoric, cheap-shots, pay-backs and set-ups. But as the consensus was that this was an emergency requiring compromise and fast action, and since everyone could agree, like the bill or not, that the House vote was a serious one requiring careful consideration and statesmanship, the least an American could ask of its representatives was that they act responsibly.

They did not. Knowing that she needed Republican support in a hyper-partisan Congress and that her responsibility, like all Speakers of the House—whose duty is to lead the entire body, not just their own party—was to make the House of Representatives effective and productive, Nancy Pelosi seized the moment before the vote to attack exactly the members she needed to have swallow their principles and pride to follow her leadership. She launched into a pure, unvarnished attack on the Republican Party and the Bush Administration that was only tangentially relevant. An analogy? An estranged husband and wife meet to decide on the terms of a divorce to avoid nasty litigation. The husband begins the meeting by saying, “Before we start, and I believe an amicable divorce is essential to the well-being and happiness of our three wonderful children, let me say that this is all your fault, because you are fat, lazy, stupid, unattractive, a lousy mother, and a pathetic lover.”
The bill was defeated by a handful of votes. Republican leaders suggested that sufficient numbers of GOP members, already dubious about the bill, turned on the measure because they were angered and insulted by Pelosi’s tirade. No particular representative has admitted this, but it is probably true. And if true, those members who changed their votes have violated their official and ethical duties. At a time of crisis, it should make no difference whether the Speaker insulted their party, spit in their eye, or set fire to their houses. The duty of the members is to the people of the United States, and if members believed that the legislation was necessary to keep the nation’s economy and financial systems from disaster, then it was their duty to vote for it no matter how personally insulted they felt. Voting against the measure because the Democratic Speaker behaved in a blatantly irresponsible, reckless and disrespectful manner is proof of a deficiency in responsibility equal to hers, as well as an over-abundance of pettiness, egotism and stupidity.

In the wake of this disgraceful performance, Republican condemned Pelosi for disrupting the fragile alliance assembled by leaders of both parties to pass the bailout bill. She deserves condemnation, but in a responsible Congress, her antics would not have changed the outcome. Democrats ridiculed the unidentified Republicans who let anger at Pelosi alter their votes. Those Republicans deserve ridicule. But a House Speaker who understood the duties of national leadership and had an ounce of respect for her duty would not have given them an excuse to be irresponsible. Pelosi has been in the House for a long time: she knows how many fools and jerks are there. She had to know that her speech would risk drawing the worst conduct from the worst members, and yet she thought it was more important to score political points than to make the passage of the bill easier. And should the Republicans have been surprised at Pelosi’s partisan grand-standing? The Congress she leads has habitually made its priority to attack the Republican administration instead of seeking bi-partisan compromise to address real, serious, and worsening national problems. This was a time for Republicans to rise above the abysmal ethical standards of the House leadership. But they were not capable of doing so, even with national interests at stake.

The Ethics Scoreboard can hardly say that it was surprised at this turn of events either.

Only saddened and disgusted.
Eventually the U.S. Senate returned to the House an altered bill, full of enough pork and goodies to bribe House members to support it even though this continued the long pattern of irresponsible use of taxpayer funds. The bill passed, and this time Pelosi didn’t use the vote as an opportunity to engage in name-calling. But her conduct before the defeat of the earlier bill, and the juvenile reaction of some GOP members to it, give us more proof that the so-called “People’s House” is being run by some very selfish, foolish, and unethical people.




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