Month 2006 Ethics Dunces

Senator Harry Reid

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi famously accused Republicans of fostering a "culture of corruption." Her term is correct, but the culture of corruption that surrounds politics and government in the United States is demonstrably bi-partisan. There is no better example of this than her counterpart in the Senate, Nevada Senator Harry Reid.

Reid, while the U. S. Senate was considering a bill opposed by the Nevada Athletic Commission, accepted ringside seats at three boxing events in Las Vegas, courtesy of, you guessed it, the Commission. The seats were worth a lot of money. Reid's companion at a championship match in 2004, Arizona Senator John McCain, who knows from bitter experience how to avoid the "appearance of impropriety" forbidden in Senate ethics rules, paid $3,400 for the tickets used by him and his wife. Senator Reid, didn't, which means he accepted thousands of dollars worth of gifts from a party with a stake in the defeat of specific legislation that Reid would soon be voting on. For a Senator in an ethical culture, the ethics bells and flashing lights should have been deafening and blinding: of course this was an attempt to influence his vote; at very least, it looked terrible. But immersed in a culture of corruption, Reid's conscience didn't even twitch. When his attendance at the event was raised by the press last month, Reid defended his conduct with two classic rationalizations of the kind that are the unmistakable calling cards of a public servant whose ethical compass is on the fritz.

Reid Rationalization #1: Reid used the tickets but wasn't influenced by them, and voted for the bill anyway. This is essentially the "Shoeless Joe" defense, most famously used by Chicago Black Sox star "Shoeless Joe" Jackson. Yes, Jackson said, he took money from gamblers who wanted him the throw the 1919 World Series, but he played his best anyway. His logic, if you can call it that, is that it was ethical to take a bribe if you double-cross the briber. It didn't work; Jackson was banned from baseball for life, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis ruling that what he did after accepting the money was irrelevant. Joe Jackson was an illiterate backwoods hick, and it is understandable how he might not detect the ethical nuances in his conduct. But Reid is a U. S. Senator, and should know better. That he does not, and follows the ethical reasoning of a legendary sports cheat, is telling.

But Reid doesn't have to go back to 1919 for his inspiration. He is also following the playbook of Tom DeLay, who defended his acceptance of expensive golf trips by asserting that they had nothing to do with his support for the clients of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, or President Clinton, who assured us that his receipt of a large gift to his Presidential Library from the ex-wife of despicable fugitive Marc Rich in no way influenced his later decision to pardon him. What is the difference between a boxing event, a golf junket, and a library? Well, one has two guys punching each other, one involves hitting a little white ball into a hole, and the other is a place where you read things. But as unethical gifts to those in power made for the purpose of influencing what should be independent judgements, there is no difference at all.

Reid Rationalization #2: Taking the tickets didn't break any laws.

This was the defense that Ken Lay thought would keep him out of jail; it has been Tom DeLay's default argument justifying all sorts of underhanded and deceptive political maneuvers just barely outside any statute's language. In the case of the ringside seats, it is true that the Senate ethics rules' limitations regarding gifts do not include gifts from federal and state governments, and the Nevada Athletic Commission is a state agency. Reid is therefore correct: accepting the tickets is technically legal. That doesn't make itethical. Here is another symptom of a corrupt culture: the prevalence of a compliance mindset that equates ethics with seeking legal loopholes to accomplish unethical ends. The Senate ethics manual, a rather thorough document that would be helpful to Senators like Reid if they ever read it, actually addresses this point. "Senators and Senate staff should be wary of accepting any gift where it appears that the gift is motivated by a desire to reward, influence or elicit favorable official action," states. "Repeatedly taking gifts which the Gifts Rule otherwise permits to be accepted may, nonetheless, reflect discredit upon the institution, and should be avoided."

Reid, based on his comments, doesn't see the ethical problem, and neither do many of his supporters on Democratic blogs and elsewhere. One blogger, while accusing the media of a pro-GOP bias for even running the story of Reid boxing attendance, argued, "The rules don't even require that such gifts be disclosed, which reflects a problem with the rules, not with Mr. Reid's behavior." This ethically ignorant comment could well be included in an ethics exam under "Explain what's wrong with this statement." The contention that an individual doing something wrong that no current law prohibits must be the fault of the law, and not the individual, essentially reduces ethical conduct to mindless compliance with rules, as if we only have an obligation to do the right thing when we are forced. Partisans who refuse to hold their leaders to high ethical standards are also a symptom of an unethical culture. And they are a cause as well.

Cultural norms do not spring up overnight. They are the cumulative effect of thousands of events, decisions, choices, and actions, plus the conduct of leaders and the response of the public. Ironically, today's culture of corruption in politics could not exist without bi-partisan cooperation, perhaps the only cooperation in evidence in today's political environment. The parties cooperated to neuter the House and Senate ethics committee, while Republicans pledged loyalty to DeLay long after it was clear that his methods were ruthless and without ethical foundation. The 100% Democratic Congressional Black Caucus is, absurdly, standing behind the ridiculously corrupt and defiant William Jefferson, sending the message that it values color over integrity; meanwhile Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert argues suspiciously that the offices of Congressmen should be immune from warranted searches. Both parties have legislators on their sides of the aisle that theyknow are corrupt, and yet neither will take action against them until there is an expose and a public outcry. In Jefferson's case, even a videotape of him accepting a bribe hasn't persuaded some members of his party that he is unfit to serve.

A culture of corruption can only be changed by the individuals in it, and the process of change must begin with a commitment to ethical conduct by the leadership. The mark of an Ethics Dunce is the inability to distinguish ethical from unethical, and having such a person lead the Democrats in the Senate does not engender much hope that the culture of corruption is going to change any time soon.




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