- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Irish rock band U2 hasn’t performed in Washington for a few months, but lawmakers may need the advice found in their most recent album: “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” Washington’s worst-kept secret exploded into public view last week as Democrats announced “congressional corruption” would headline their 2006 campaign. The Democrats’ tactic is understandable at one level: incapable of forging a popular intraparty consensus on an issue-based agenda, the path of least resistance is attack.

Yet the content of political warfare matters — and all issues are not created equal. Certain subjects cause more widespread, unpredictable and institutionally devastating fallout.

Democrats drift into dangerous, uncharted territory by mounting political campaigns based on ethics alone. Criticizing the GOP’s issue agenda — domestic or foreign policies — is typical Washington fare in the minds of voters. Yet starting an ethics war, where lawmakers challenge colleagues’ motives and even their morality, moves the debate to one of Dante’s lower levels of Hell — burning everyone in the process.

Assailing GOP policy ideas does little damage to Congress as an institution; but fomenting an ethics jihad does. Many believe attacks on ethics are no different than Democrats bludgeoning Republicans on policy. They’re wrong.

Recent press reports suggest Democratic leaders rebuffed Republican Rep. David Dreier of California when he tried to reach out and find common ground on a bipartisan ethics- and lobbying-reform package. “The Democratic leaders held a conference call with their members last week and the strong consensus was ‘don’t play ball’ with the Republicans,” a House GOP leadership aide told me. So where are all the Congressional reform advocates who normally get on their soapboxes, claiming to long for the days of Tip O’Neil-Bob Michel bipartisan comity? The Democrats’ ethics gambit virtually guarantees no bipartisan agreement over reform this year, meaning the issue never goes away. Even if the Republicans pass their own reform package, it won’t satiate the Democrats, leading them continually to point out Republican indiscretions — real or trumped-up. As the next logical political step, the GOP will respond in kind. Turning Washington into an ethics roller derby means the issue festers and reinforces Americans’ worst suspicions about members of Congress — of both parties.

Further expansion of the ethics holy war will also produce actions lawmakers later regret. Senator Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, recently issued a scathing report about his Republican colleagues’ past behavior and campaign contributions. He also used unusually harsh language about the efforts of a GOP senator to craft of lobbying reform bill. “Having Senator Santorum talk about reform is like having John Gotti talk about doing something about organized crime,” Mr. Reid told PBS’s “News Hour” last week. Republicans immediately shot back, questioning the ethics of Mr. Reid’s use of taxpayer dollars to issue a blatantly political report.

Mr. Reid later apologized. And while the Senate Democratic minority leader deserves credit for lowering the temperature, the back and forth about ethics is more than a “policy dispute that escalated into personal condemnation,” as Mr. Reid described it. It’s both different and dangerous.

Some say Democrats have nothing to lose. But they do — the legitimacy of the institution they hope to control again is at stake. And while certain partisan Democrats may not be able to see beyond their current tactics, it’s time for others concerned about Congress’s public standing as an institution to call for bipartisan resolution of this issue.

There is value in political parties drawing sharp distinctions on policy to show voters clear choices, but not when it comes to institutional ethics rules. Congress can’t successfully accomplish reform on a partisan basis. And unfortunately “no resolution” is exactly what some Democrats want.

Those Congress-watchers and media analysts who have decried the partisanship in the current political environment need to step up and call for bipartisan cooperation on this issue too. Republicans like Mr. Dreier and Speaker Hastert understand this distinction and have reached across the aisle. Others — particularly those in the media and in think tanks interested in maintaining Congressional legitimacy — should call on the Democrats to do the same. Everyone needs to help diffuse this atomic bomb.

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