House Ethics Charges – Ending A Bad Truce

by on June 21st, 2004

Congressman Chris Bell (D-TX) has brought an ethics complaint against Congressman Tom DeLay (R-TX), the first such charges the House of Representatives has seen in about 7 years. Many commentators have called the complaint “the end of a truce.” There has been an armistice of sorts, and it merely proves that the Incumbent Party’s Democrat and Republican wings have gotten along despite the Clinton impeachment, the 2000 election farce and the wars against terror and against Iraq. Bipartisanship, however, in the matter of ethics, is un-American and wrong.

There are three basic charges, which may or may not be violations of the House ethics code. Westar Energy may or may not have tried to buy influence over pending legislation through Mr. DeLay; Mr. DeLay may or may not have illegally funneled campaign money to candidates in Texas races; and he may or may not have abused his position to get the FAA to track a plane used by Texas Democrats as they avoided quorum calls in the redistricting fight in the state. Mr. DeLay’s defenders note that Mr. Bell only brought these charges after he lost a primary against another Congressman which was caused by re-districting. He’s now a lame duck, and this is his revenge.

Texas, of course, has had more than its share of dirty politics – LBJ plain stole a Senate seat from Coke Stevens long before even I was born with missing and stuffed ballot boxes. And while I don’t like Mr. DeLay, I don’t find these charges particularly awful. Westar deserves some investigation, but the other two are rather petty – technical violations at best.

However, I find it incredible that for seven years, there hasn’t been a single ethics complaint brought against even one of the 435 members of the House. If this is an accurate reflection of their behavior, then I can only say that these 435 people are paragons of virtue far beyond what anyone had a right to expect. Not only did they all keep the ethics code of the House, but also there was nothing in their behavior that would make a political opponent even consider bringing a complaint. Forget the fire, there wasn’t even any smoke if we are to believe this argument.

Well, I don’t buy it. The House Democrats and the House Republicans have engaged in Cold War deterrence for the last seven years, and the voters have been denied one of the checks in the system.

Now, I don’t pretend for a minute that the House is a mutual admiration society, and frankly, I think hardball politics is the only way to play (but there are rules). When Speaker Wright got nailed by Mr. Gingrich for his phony book sales scheme for fund raising, that was good for the country. And when Mr. Gingrich had his own troubles, he got called to account for them.

In a system where most incumbents get re-elected without serious opposition, where money buys access for private gain against the public interest, the ethics complaint is a useful tool. It would be far better to be able to vote an unethical congressman out of office, but even in competitive districts that can’t happen if the conspiracy of silence persists. This goes beyond party politics – if your congressman is a crook, and my congressman doesn’t complain about it, then mine is an accessory, which makes him a crook as well.

The glib cynic who holds all politicians in contempt will say, “Of course, they’re crooks. They’re politicians.” I find that too easy and too irresponsible. Besides, the American system is founded on the belief that people aren’t perfect. It’s founded on the premise that nobody can be trusted in the dark. If this ethics probe provides a little light, it will be worth it, regardless of the outcome.

Jeff Myhre