Topic: Government & Politics

Congress Ethics Free Zone
(2/24/2004)

Ever since Democrats used House ethics rules technicalities to punish then-Speaker Newt Gingrich for his successful ouster of Speaker Jim Wright for similar ethics rules violations, the leaders of both parties have observed a truce: only blatant and egregious ethical violations, preferably those verging on the criminal (think Traficant), will rouse the House ethics enforcement machinery from rusty paralysis. Thus the habitually ethically challenged among the Representatives (such as Virginia Democrat Jim Moran, who seems to be eternally explaining the gifts, loans, and low interest mortgages he receives from lobbyists and corporations seeking his favor) have continued on their compromised way without so much as a rap on the knuckles.

But too much, as the saying goes, is enough, even in the House of Representatives. Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer has rightly, if futilely, called for an ethics inquiry after comments by Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) that GOP colleagues offered to funnel donations to his son's congressional campaign if Smith voted for the recent Medicare bill, and threatened to sink the son's campaign if Smith did not. Smith, by the way, refused to cave, and would have warranted an Ethics Scoreboard Ethics Hero nomination if only he had stuck to his story. Now that the heat of battle is over, he's waffling about whether and if he was truly threatened, and it looks like this ethical outrage too may go unsanctioned. Let us hope not. Hardball politics is one thing, but Smith's original story smacked of extortion and thuggery. It would be nice to identify who the culprits were and who, if anybody, put them up to such egregious strong-arming, so fair-minded Americans who don't like their Democracy handled Corleone Family style could run them out of office.

Less clear-cut are Democratic ethics complaints (though not yet formal complaints) about GOP Majority leader Tom Delay, who has devised an especially cynical scheme. Delay has established a non-profit charity with the heart-warming name Celebrations for Children. Its secondary purpose, however, appears to be under-writing celebrations for Republican officials and donors. During the 2004 GOP convention, dinners, receptions and other social events will be funded out of foundation donations. A $500,000 gift to the needy children, for example earns private dinners with Mr. DeLay, a golf tournament for the donor and nine friends, 12 tickets to a Broadway show, 25 tickets to a "members' reception before or after the president's acceptance speech, and a private yacht cruise.

Democrats see this as offensive and an ethical outrage, but their argument looks weaker the more you think about it. By all accounts, 75% of donated money actually does go to kids. Delay is selling access and influence for sure, but it's hard to see why selling access and influence in a way that helps children is somehow more unethical than the usual ways Delay and his colleagues do it, which involves their accepting money and luxuries for themselves. Discussing ethics in the hypocritical and venal business of political fundraising is kin to dreaming, but upon reflection it seems that the Majority Leader has figured out a way to do some good while going about the usual Congressional work of pretending not to be bribed by monied interests. It doesn't make an unethical business ethical, but it makes it better.

The critics are probably angry that they didn't think of it first. But if an ethical outrage is going to break the House moratorium on ethics enforcement, let it be Smith's extorters, or Jim Moran, when he reveals his most recent loan from a lobbyist. As unethical conduct goes, Delay's is pretty benign.

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