- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

The late Earl Long of Louisiana was correct: Politicians are not averse to ethics, he said; they’ll use anything they can get their hands on.

So once more around the congressional ethics question, we go, but this time with an eye to dumping the whole mess on a third-party office of integrity. It is a bad idea that carries severe risk. But first a little history:

About 30 years ago Congress decided that it needed to take ethics somewhat more seriously. The black eye it had received in the whitewash by the Democratic majority of the Bobby Baker affair, the premier scandal of the day, could no longer be tolerated. Only by the skin of their teeth, a manipulated investigation by the Senate Rules Committee and the enormous influence of his mentor, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, had Vice President and soon-to-be President Lyndon Johnson and his party survived a disaster.

Although the corrupt dealings of Mr. Baker, the secretary to the Senate’s Democratic majority, were several years behind them, the smell lingered on Capitol Hill, enhanced by questions of influence-peddling by Rep. Adam Clayton Powell on the House side and a new blow to the majority’s esteem in the Senate, allegations of malfeasance against one of the Democrats’ most prominent senior members, Thomas Dodd of Connecticut. The Senate Democratic leadership, under pressure from its Republican counterparts, had earlier decided to create a permanent committee on ethics. The House followed suit.

In the light of today’s scandals, most them in the House, the Dodd affair, for which the senator was censured by his colleagues but never prosecuted, seems hardly a scandal at all. It was driven largely by a press hungry for spectacle and based on allegations of double billings for travel and misuse of campaign funds. The charges were made by several of Dodd’s former staff, seeking revenge for being fired over a matter of sexual affairs in the office. The Senate overreacted to avoid another Baker debacle.

Now, following a series of tawdry revelations ranging from improper overtures to House pages by former Rep. Mark Foley, the confessions of fraud and abuse by K Street super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and to the conviction of two members for accepting bribes, the newly elected Democrat congressional majority is considering whether to take congressional ethics a step further. Under discussion is an independent office of integrity with broad investigative powers. New Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has made it clear discussion of such an office will be high on her agenda. In the Senate, where a similar proposal was rejected recently, there will be a new push by a bipartisan group.

The motivation this time is the partisan ethics committee’s failure to accomplish what it was assigned to do. It has been clear almost from the start in both chambers that the committees were vulnerable to the same kind of political manipulation that historically have marred internal investigations. A prime example was the Foley case in which committee officials and the Republican leadership essentially looked the other way on Mr. Foley’s obviously improper e-mails to male pages. In a hasty enquiry, the committee absolved everyone for not telling.

But both sides of the political aisle must take the blame. When the sensational disclosures about Abramoff surfaced, a drive began to pass new restrictions on lobbying and to toughen the ethics code. Both houses balked, instead adopting the mildest of changes and leading critics to contend that Congress as an institution was incapable of meaningful oversight of its members’ activities.

Creation of an independent ethics office raises several major questions. How long would it take for the collective membership of the entire U.S. Congress to realize it probably had created Mary Shelley’s worst nightmare — a potentially uncontrollable monster free to pick nits as well as to commit major indiscretions without challenge? Any such office would necessarily want to justify its existence, a condition ripe for abuse.

Second, it raises a number of constitutional problems. Can Congress set up an outside office to investigate its own elected members or must that necessarily be the purview of the body itself with only its members doing so? Also, members of Congress, like other Americans, are subject to state and federal prosecution for wrongdoing.

Perhaps Congress is incapable of thoroughly policing itself, but that is the system and we are stuck with it.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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