Spotlight On A Congress In Institutional Crisis

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Thursday, October 19, 2006
The page scandal that is currently shaking Congress is not just about sex, lies and cover-ups; it's also about institutional integrity. 

Everywhere you turn in this latest congressional scandal, you find behaviors that have become all too familiar on Capitol Hill in the last several years: the elevation of political calculation and personal loyalty above other values; an overriding focus on winning the next election; the failure to investigate a serious matter with diligence; the dominance of a very small inner circle of congressional leaders and staff in handling key matters; the disappearance of safeguards and systems — in this case, a functioning ethics committee — that might have kept the House from running off the rails; the hypocrisy of those who expressed the importance of family values but tolerated former Congressman Mark Foley's behavior. 

But the feature that has bothered me the most in this sordid mess is the disregard for the institutional integrity of the House of Representatives. 

It is heartening that the ethics committee has finally stirred from its long torpor and has begun to investigate who knew about Foley's behavior yet swept it under the rug. But it is telling that even members of Congress, not to mention the public at large, are uncertain about the committee's ability to investigate fully and dispassionately, which is why some are also calling for an independent investigation. 

The sharp decline in the ability of the House in recent years to police its own members has led to a widespread loss of faith in the institution's integrity. 

The vast majority of members of Congress, I believe, are principled, yet they have tolerated an institution that has not demanded of its members that they abide by the primary ethical standard of the House code of conduct: that all members, at all times, act so as to reflect credit on the House. If this standard had been applied here, it would have meant, at a minimum, that any member with knowledge of Foley's activities would have tried to stop him immediately. 

The emphasis on winning and retaining political power that has been so central to House leaders now gives all appearances of having led them to check their responsibilities — in the form of concern for the well-being of both House pages and the institution of the House — at the door. Foley might have been stopped as long as two years ago by a leadership with an appropriate sense of priorities and institutional responsibilities. 

Instead, interested perhaps in preserving a congressional seat and avoiding bad headlines, the leadership chose not to delve into the e-mails that should have set alarm bells ringing. 

The secretive manner in which concerns about Foley's behavior seem to have been treated is also part and parcel of a modus operandi that badly needs an overhaul. Even before this particular scandal hit the news, the American people were making it clear that they distrusted Congress, recently saying they disapproved of its work by a margin of 66 to 32 percent. 

This is because, I believe, the public feels the disappearance of the transparency, check-and-balance procedures and watchdog structures that were put in place over many decades by members of Congress devoted to the institution. 

The American people want and deserve a Congress that acts to protect its own integrity. If it does not, no one should be surprised if the public fails to hold it in high esteem. 

A functioning ethics system would have spared the House not only this moment's shame, but also some, if not most, of the scandals that have brought it such disgrace in recent years. Americans long for people of strong principle to stand up and put a stop to such breaches; a robust ethics process is not simply a nicety, it's absolutely essential. One of the top priorities of the new Congress should be to rebuild a vigorous, robust, bipartisan ethics committee so that it can maintain the high standards of congressional conduct that are essential for safeguarding the public's trust and confidence. 

Finally, to me the saddest aspect of the Foley affair is how starkly it shows the relaxed attitude toward the institutional standing of the House. What I would hope to see in the end is a Congress that takes seriously its constitutional role, in which members are not just adherents of a political party determined to continue control of the institution, but also are highly aware that they belong to a separate and co-equal branch of government whose untainted performance is vital to the functioning of representative democracy. 

If, as a result of the uproar over this page scandal, members begin to show us that they are determined to protect the integrity and credibility of the House and to act always to reflect credit on the institution, then this whole, sad affair will have produced some good. 

(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.)