Washington Matters


Congressional Ethics Still an Oxymoron

Mark Willen

The shoddy behavior is bad enough, but why do they always think they can get away with it?



Few people really look for things they don’t expect to find, and it’s with that in mind that I always doubted the story of Diogenes the Cynic, who was said to wander around ancient Greece carrying a lantern and searching for an honest man, believing all the while that he’d never find one because there was no such person.

The legend comes to mind often these days, where the tenets of ethical behavior, if not the laws that can land you in jail, seem to have little standing with far too many people. What’s truly is amazing is that so many of them persist in thinking it’s always the other guy who’ll get caught. I’m not suggesting it’s OK to break rules if you can get away with it, but it’s doubly foolish to commit the sin and then think no one will ever find out.

No, I’m not talking about Tiger Woods, although he obviously fits. I’m thinking of our elected representatives in Congress. Last week alone brought a major New York Times investigation showing that rules prohibiting lobbyists from treating members to free trips were easily skirted by corporations, trade groups and the beneficiaries of the largess. According to the Times, for example, a big donor flew Rep. Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat, to Inner Mongolia to lobby for a new medical supply lab in China. A group of European companies flew Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, to tour a prince’s castle in Liechtenstein and to go skiing in the Alps. And Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen got a free trip to attend a gala in Israel that lobbyists and executives paid $18,000 to attend.

Perhaps the biggest story of the week concerned Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Finance Committee. Baucus has acknowledged a romantic relationship with a former aide, Melodee Hanes, whom he nominated for the job of U.S. attorney. His aides say there’s no scandal because the relationship is above board – both are unmarried and now live together – and because Hanes withdrew from consideration for the job. But Politico reported Friday that Baucus gave Hanes a $14,000 raise in 2008 while she still worked for him and after they became involved. He also took her with him on a taxpayer-financed trip to Southeast Asia and the Middle East, though foreign policy was not her specialty.

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And there’s a lot more:

Democratic Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel remains under investigation for allegedly misusing his office and taking unfair advantage of New York rent controlled apartments for campaign offices. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) denies charges he used his job as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee to raise campaign donations. GOP Sen. John Ensign of Nevada faces an ethics probe and maybe a Justice Dept. investigation of how he handled an affair with an ex-staffer, including payments his parents made to the staffer’s husband. Plus numerous members have had to defend against charges that they steered money to companies that backed their campaigns.

This is an old story and there’s little in here to surprise anyone, unless maybe it’s the fact that such behavior continues despite growing public anger and scrutiny. Former Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), who’s going to prison after a cash bribe was found in his freezer, may be an exception of sorts, but the difference seems to be mostly in degree. The chutzpah of these politicians is truly astounding, and what’s most hard to believe is that people always seem to think they will be the one to get away with it. When will they ever learn? And how can we drive the message home?




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