Congressional Ethics is Not an Oxymoron

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Tuesday, August 15, 2000
Several years ago, I was watching the evening news on television when the anchorman announced the death of Wilbur Mills, the legendary former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. There was a lot he could have said. He might have recounted the central role Mills had played in creating Medicare. Or he might have talked about Mills' hand in shaping the Social Security system and in drafting the tax code. But he didn't. Instead, he recalled how Mills' career had foundered after he'd been found early one morning with an Argentinian stripper named Fanne Foxe. And then he moved on to the next story. 

Now, one of the perks of being chairman of an influential committee in Congress, as I was at the time, is that you can pick up the telephone and get through to television news anchors. Which I did: I chided him for summing up the man's career with a scandal. Much to my surprise, he apologized. 

The fact is, though, he wasn't doing anything unusual. Americans of all stripes like to dwell on misbehavior by Members of Congress. We look at the latest scandal and assume that we're seeing the real Congress. But we're not, not by a long shot. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not proposing my former colleagues for sainthood. But as the press lauds two vice-presidential candidates—Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joe Lieberman—for their probity in Congress, we should remember that probity is the rule, not the exception. 

I expect you'll laugh. What about all that special-interest money just waiting to be grabbed, or the high pay and perks that Members of Congress get, or their famously loose ethical standards, you ask. Well, let's take them one by one. 

It is true that there is a lot of money from special interests floating around the Capitol. In fact, there's far too much money. But while it would be a mistake to say that campaign contributions have no influence on how a Member votes, it is also wrong to say that they are the only influence: a Member's own beliefs, the opinions of party leaders and experts, and what they hear from their constituents all have an impact as well. 

The same is true of congressional pay and perks. Yes, it's true that Members of Congress are paid better than the average American, and they get a nice benefits package. But they do not—as I used to hear regularly from peeved constituents who swore it was true—get free medical care or enjoy a free ride on Social Security or don't have to pay income taxes. And congressional pay hasn't even kept up with inflation over the last few decades. 

As for ethics, let me tell you one other story. Back in the early 1970s, I made an argument in a committee hearing one day favoring military aid for one of our allies. When I got back to my office, I discovered a delegation from that country waiting for me; they wanted to thank me with a fat honorarium, a trip to their country, and an honorary degree from one of their universities. I declined. 

The point here isn't my purity. It's that at the time this happened, there was nothing improper about their offer. Today, there would be. When I arrived in Congress, Members could accept lavish gifts from special interests, pocket campaign contributions in their Capitol offices and convert their campaign contributions to personal use, none of which would be tolerated now. 

Things still aren't perfect, but the ethical climate at the Capitol is light-years ahead of where it was a couple of decades ago. And, I might add, light-years ahead of the common wisdom. 

(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.)