All in all Congress has done a good job policing itself –– the eternally skeptical press, public cynicism and thundering denunciations from the professional good government groups, not-withstanding. But, still there is need for reform. Recently, suggestions have been made for Congress to establish an independent ethics commission to replace its “in-house” structure that has begun to wobble a little bit. Thirty-three states have them already: why not our Congress?
Having served in the institution I understand the reluctance of Members to do that. Members feel they are not criminals, that they deal effectively with the infrequent (though always high profile) transgressions and, besides, as politicians living in a big glass house they really don’t want to give a pile of stones to a panel of other folks. I understand all those feelings. I had them – a part of me still does.
Perhaps most galling to the normal, hard working, dedicated Senator and Representative is the public presumption of guilt – for the very fact you serve in Congress. Too many people believe and too many journalists seem to assume that, if you have an election certificate, the chances are you stole it – and anything else not welded in place.
Further, people assume that Congress will always circle the wagons to fight any accusation against a colleague – especially from their own party. That overstates the case badly and, besides, it is not the reason I have concluded that an independent ethics process would serve everyone better.
I remember voting on October 2, 1980 to expel Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Meyers (D-PA). He had been caught in ABSCAM. He went to jail for it. But in addition, he was the first Member to be expelled from the US House of Representative since 1861. That 119 year gap was not repeated. Other ethics cases followed in the years since and that, I think, is encouraging.
Still, I recall the pain I felt at having to stand in judgment of a colleague. I hardly knew him, but still… And, recognizing the huge majority of my colleagues were honest blended that pain with a resistance to “injure” the institution.
In fact, I recall watching Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-FL) standing at the Majority Leaders podium from which he had “prosecuted” Meyers. As Chair of the
“Ethics” committee he had been tough, resolute and – as anyone who knew him would expect – unyielding. But as he stood there, the votes being cast all around him, I was amazed to see tears streaming down his cheeks. I never asked, but I suspect he wept, not for Meyers, but for the institution he loved and served with such integrity.
And strangely, it may be that emotional tie – to the Congress itself – not the accused Member that is the strongest argument for turning the difficult job over to a qualified, outside panel. I do not believe that human beings can work as hard, face the stresses of office and the many difficult choices that confront Members of Congress without developing a strong love for and desire to protect their institution from shame.
Even though I think in our times Congress has done this difficult job pretty well, wouldn’t the institution and the public be better served with a more objective, less emotionally trying system? And would the public perception of the Congress improve – even if only a little bit?