Congress Needs to Invigorate Its Ethics System, Not Weaken It

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Monday, January 17, 2005
It's not often that standing still can make headlines, but Congress managed to do just that a few weeks ago. As you may remember, the House leadership decided to abandon two rules changes it had wanted. One would have made it more difficult for legislators to discipline a colleague for ethics violations. The other would have allowed the House majority leader to keep his position even if he is indicted by a grand jury back home. 

House members are due a small measure of applause for this, but true congratulations should go to ordinary American citizens. The decision to drop the two proposals came within the Republican caucus, after many of its members pressured their leaders to backtrack. Why did they do this? Having spent time during the end-of-the-year recess listening to complaints from constituents, they understood that weakening ethics provisions would reflect poorly on themselves, their party, and the House itself. The common sense of American voters, who were willing to speak up to their elected representatives, won the day. 

Yet it is hard to get too excited about this small victory. Take the proposal to abolish the 30-year-old rule allowing members of the House to be rebuked for bringing discredit on the institution even if they did not violate the law. Instead, the leadership wanted House members to get a pass unless they violated a specific law or rule. This seems reasonable, until you realize that ethical misbehavior comes in so many shapes and sizes that if you have to spell out every possible violation, a member bent on mischief can always find cracks. Is it really too much to expect that the people we entrust with safeguarding our democracy will conduct themselves at all times to reflect creditably on the House? Obviously, Americans don't think this is unreasonable — that's why they let their representatives know what they thought about the rules changes. 

Unfortunately, this obvious public hunger for belief in the integrity of our leaders didn't keep the House leadership from using the fact that they did the right thing in two instances to obscure the fact that they did the wrong thing in a third. They changed the rules so that when an ethics complaint is lodged, both parties must agree before it can be investigated. In the past, when the two parties disagreed an investigation would go forward regardless. Now, uncomfortable ethics charges can simply be shoved under the table when either party's leadership wants to do so. At a time when we should be invigorating the ethics system in Congress, in other words, it is headed in the other direction, making it more difficult — not less — to file an ethics complaint against a member. 

Why should we care about how robustly Congress polices its own members' behavior? Isn't it enough that if they break the law, they can be prosecuted? In a word, no. To begin with, I don't think we want to defer to prosecutors and the courts when it comes to judging our elected representatives. "At least he's not a convicted felon" does not strike me as the standard this nation ought to set for its lawmakers. We can do better. 

But there's a more fundamental issue at stake. James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a member of the Constitutional Convention who was rivaled only by James Madison in his grasp of the principles at issue in forging a democracy, argued that the behavior of the government depends on the character of those entrusted to guide it. "As the conduct of a state, both with regard to itself and others, must greatly depend upon the character, the talents, and the principles of those to whom the direction of that conduct is intrusted," he said, "it is highly necessary that those who are to protect the rights, and to perform the duties of the commonwealth, should be men of proper principles, talents, and characters." At the same time, he pointed out, the ultimate responsibility lies with the voters, who need to be able to "distinguish and select" those with the proper integrity. 

Voters want their elected representatives to be men and women of integrity. But they don't always know about their representative's misbehavior, and sometimes they fail to vote the scoundrel out of office. That's where Congress comes in. Congress should set high standards for itself, and then enforce them. Only then will it measure up to the expectations of the voters, and reclaim their respect and confidence. It should listen to ethics complaints, investigate them fully and fairly, and punish transgressions without a lot of hemming and hawing. That's what Americans want, and they deserve to have it. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)