Topic: Government & Politics

Cesspool Pollution in Congress

The Washington Post reports that the GOP majority in the House of Representatives wants to re-write the ethics rules to remove all gray areas and matters of debate. This would mean sayonara to Rule XXIII, Clause 1 of the official House Code of Conduct, which reads,

 "A member . . . officer or employee of the House shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House."

There is every reason for the Post and everyone else to get a queasy feeling about this development, although under different circumstances one could mount an argument in its favor. The vagueness of this particular ethics rule has been used in the past to settle political scores (Newt Gingrich was fined and excoriated as Speaker for a sweetheart book deal that Senator Clinton’s own book arrangement dwarfed like Godzilla dancing with the Geico gecko) and has been one of the main factors leading to the bi-partisan negotiated coma that has caused the Ethics Committee to sit idly by while some members made hash of far more substantive rules.

All professions prefer specific ethics provisions, for two reasons, one good and one not so good.

The good reason: With specificity, you know what’s expected of you, and what conduct to avoid.

The not so good reason: With specific provisions, clever people can always figure out how to violate the spirit of the rules without actually breaking a rule itself. Specific ethics rules work to the advantage of ruthless and relentless politicians.

Like Tom DeLay.

That name is why the GOP cannot be trusted on this issue. As this is written, the House Majority Leader is attempting to get House Speaker Denis Hastert to remove Ethics Committee Chair Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who had the audacity to call Delay on some (but by no means all) of his machinations. The projected replacement is a DeLay acolyte, pretty much guaranteeing that the Machiavellian Texan will run amuck.

The fact is that no set of ethics rules can ever be complete. People just aren’t that smart, and legislators are really not that smart. Some things can’t be anticipated, and legislators will always find some way to turn a buck for a favor that the rules didn’t anticipate. A few weeks ago, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that Rep. Maxine Waters’s family members earned more than $1 million in the past eight years doing business with candidates, companies and causes she has helped. This is no different from graft, corrupt and unethical to the core, but the House rules don’t specifically prohibit it. Yet an enterprising ethics committee (which the House does not have), however, could make a strong case that such evident enrichment-by-proxy does not “reflect credibly on the House.”

 The only way to interpret the effort to re-write the House ethics rules is to look at the participants and their likely motives. Both sides of the aisle in both the Senate and the House are crawling with venal scoundrels who have gerrymandered themselves into near-permanent employment in a mockery of representative government. It is well documented (though not well-publicized…got to get that 2,345th Scott Peterson story in, you know) that they use information about the industries they regulate to make fortunes in the stock market: a study found that during the dot-com boom years of 1993-98, a majority of US Senators were trading stocks – and beating the market by 12 percentage points a year on average. By comparison, corporate insiders beat the market by 5 percent, and typical households underperformed by 1.4 percent. Coincidence? I think not. Other noble public servants use their committee chairmanships to set themselves up in cushy jobs with the same companies the committees are supposed to be overseeing. There are some worm-free apples in this barrel, but not nearly enough.

So now the House GOP members want to weaken the Ethics Rules further. The current rules have not stopped members from enriching themselves and benefiting from illicit influences, and DeLay and Friends think they are too stringent. And they believe, probably correctly, that the public is largely uninterested in the content of their ethics code.

The result is going to be the further pollution of what is already an ethical cesspool.

And what are we supposed to do?

Write our Congressman?


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