- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

At some point during their careers, every elected official must decide whether their principles will shape their politics, or their politics will shape their principles. Unfortunately, modern America seems short of politicians willing to stand on principle, regardless of the political fallout. But voters notice when elected officials let politics shape their principles, and they often vote accordingly. For proof of the possible dangers of putting politics, just ask the recently defeated Republican Party.

In my postelection commentary, I noted that Christian conservatives contributed to the Republican defeat last November. Confronted with rampant Republican corruption, few prominent Christian leaders clearly and forcefully denounced Republican misdeeds. Now that Democrats have won a congressional majority, it will be interesting to see whether there will be as much hesitance to speak out.

Corruption should be a nonpartisan issue. When individual representatives or senators receive bribes from lobbyists, or are paid to use their power for private gain, it is not just bad for their political party, it is bad for the whole nation. Their misdeeds taint the entire Congress and make it more difficult for our representatives to do their jobs.

Personal misconduct typically says little about one’s party; a senator does not take a bribe because she is a Republican, a congressman does not accept illegal gifts because he is a Democrat. Generally personal greed and selfishness drives corrupt politicians, not politics.

Personal weakness becomes a political issue when the governing party turns a blind eye to corruption. There will probably never be a time when every member of Congress is perfectly upright. Combine power with a fallen human nature and there will always be problems, on both sides of the aisle. Yet if both political parities stood on principle and took all signs of corruption seriously, corruption would not be a political issue. It would be seen more as a personal shortcoming.

But Republicans and Democrats sometimes try to protect ethically challenged members of their party for political reasons. Before long, this desire to cover up immoral behavior leads to a “culture of corruption,” which can, as we have seen, become extremely partisan.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made a commendable promise. She said the next Congress will be “the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history.” Politicians who are committed to high ethical standards, regardless of their political affiliation, should strive to make her promise a reality.

Those of us who are not elected can help by consistently discussing congressional ethics from a nonpartisan perspective. It is painful when our favorite politicians are called into question. But if a law has been broken or rules rent asunder, we cannot allow our personal affection to stand in the way of justice. Whether an individual is a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or liberal, we should all denounce every sign of corruption.

Mrs. Pelosi will reveal the degree of here commitment to an ethical Congress by how she responds to the re-election of Rep. William Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat. Two weeks ago Mr. Jefferson’s constituents voted to send him back to Washington for a ninth term. This, despite major suspicion hanging over him.

Two of the congressman’s former associates have already pleaded guilty to bribing him, and both were sentenced to significant jail time. In 2005, Mr. Jefferson was videotaped accepting $100,000 from FBI informant Lori Mody. At the time he told Miss Mody he would need at least $500,000, which he planned to give to Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar to ensure that Miss Mody’s company would win contracts in Nigeria. $90,000 of that money was later discovered in a freezer in Mr. Jefferson’s home.

Mr. Jefferson is, of course, presumed innocent until proven guilty. Still, there is strong evidence he has, at the very least, abused his power. It is expected he will soon be indicted. Despite all this, Mrs. Pelosi has sent mixed messages about the role of Mr. Jefferson in the next Congress: It now seems he will be offered a seat on the Small Business Committee.

It is not enough for Mrs. Pelosi to strip Jefferson of his former seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, while granting him a seat on a “less important” committee. Given the seriousness of the allegations, and the evidence against him already made public, Mr. Jefferson should be prevented from serving on any committees until the investigation into his actions has concluded. Committee involvement, where only a few members of Congress decide weighty issues that often go unchanged by the full Congress, is ripe with temptation for bribes and improper influence.

Mrs. Pelosi had plenty of strong words to say about Republican corruption before the November elections. She should put such words into action now that it is a Democrat who is under suspicion.

At the same time, the Republican Party could show strong leadership by outdoing the Democrats in their zeal to clean up the mess on their side of the aisle. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if both parties competed to see who could clean up the corruption in their own ranks the quickest, rather than excusing their own corruption by citing their opponents’ errors? Depending on the enthusiasm with which they clean their own houses, the Republicans and Democrats will reveal who condemns corruption on principle, and who condemns it for political gain.

KEN CONNOR

Chairman.

Center for a Just Society.

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