Topic: Government & Politics

Cynical Ethics, GOP Style

It’s an impressive accomplishment, really: managing to debase the concept of ethics in government while passing a measure that reverses an unjust rule. But House Republicans were certainly equal to the task, and they achieved this amazing feat on behalf of the one member of Congress who beyond any rational doubt has shown himself to be ethically unfit for national office, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

When it looked as if their standard bearer in Congress might be indicted as part of the Texas fundraising scandal that has already claimed two of DeLay’s close associates, the Republican realized that the procedural rule they had rammed through over a decade ago could rise up to bite the party that spawned it. Thus they used their newly beefed up majority to withdraw the rule, and return to “the good old days”. Back in the ’90s, the GOP made Democrat leader Dan Rostenkowski step down from his powerful post by passing a rule that House leaders had to surrender their positions if they were under indictment, which “Rosty” was at the time. Even though he eventually was found guilty and went to prison, this was a bad rule, passed for political rather than ethical reasons. Indictments are only accusations, after all, and even politicians, odd as it may sound, are presumed innocent.

But that does not alter the fact that in some cases, and DeLay certainly seems like he would be one of those, a party interested in maintaining its reputation and integrity should ask a leader who is facing serious charges to take a leave of absence from his job until his name is cleared. The GOP argument that a blameless leader could be forced out because of an indictment plotted by an unscrupulous prosecutor in league with the opposing party has nothing to do with DeLay, who has been admonished three times by a bi-partisan House Ethics Committee that has been otherwise semi-comatose for years. Given his track record, it is hard to imagine that a DeLay indictment wouldn’t have some substance to it. The GOP move, admirable in the abstract, has very little to do with principles of justice and everything to with protecting DeLay from the fruits of his own dubious political practices.

DeLay, remember, also tried to get the House to bar “lame duck” Congressmen from filing ethics complaints after outgoing Texas Democrat Chris Bell had the effrontery to call DeLay on some clear-cut violations. The inspiration behind this move is that DeLay has enough muscle to make the life of any representative who dares to call him on his “creative ethics” a living hell, but that House members who are leaving can file complaints with impunity. The withdrawal of the indictment rule is just more of the same.

And so we have a wonderful example of how what would normally be a sensible and ethical action can be unethical and cynical when the motives behind it are wrong. Still, the bleats of outrage from the Democrats get little sympathy from this corner either. That party opposed the now-defunct rule when it had its own crooked leadership, and there is the more recent example of President Clinton’s impeachment to consider. Here was an indictment (for that is all that an impeachment is) from the House itself, and nobody suggested, certainly no Democrats, that Mr. Clinton was obliged to resign his leadership post before the Senate passed it judgement. That eventuality would have only occurred in the event of a conviction, which never came for Clinton, and may not for DeLay (who has, to date, not even been indicted.)

The Ethics Scoreboard thinks that a conviction, rather than an indictment, is the correct impetus for a forced leadership change in the House, although any party would be wise to have a general policy of asking party leaders facing hard time to step down voluntarily until legal mattes are resolved. As for DeLay, his time will probably come. He has ethical blind spots galore, and is only getting bolder with time. The more the Republicans move to protect “The Hammer,” the more damaging DeLay’s inevitable fall will be to the party.

As the old newspaper columnists used to say, “You read it here first!”

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