Wright Report Highlights Ethics Concerns in Politics. But both parties are now using ethics charges as political weapons
THE ethics accusations of a House of Representatives committee against Speaker Jim Wright fit into a pattern of heightened public attention to ethics and of increased use by both parties of ethics charges as a political weapon, analysts here say. In the decade and a half since Watergate, America has been ``using scandal increasingly as a way of doing political business,'' says ethics expert Suzanne Garment. ``And this choice of weapons has great costs,'' she says. It can result in greater public cynicism about all politicians and difficulty in obtaining quality appointees, she says.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, says ethics specialist Michael Josephson, the increased attention to ethical considerations will be beneficial. ``When all the smoke clears,'' he says, ``we're going to start finding ourselves with de facto standards of conduct that are much higher than ever before.''
A key reason for the rising public attention to ethics, James Thurber says, is a radical change in press coverage. ``From 1960 to the present, there's been a revolution in terms of what gets reported,'' says Dr. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
The increased hurling of ethics charges ``is incredibly disruptive and incredibly poisonous of the atmosphere'' of government, says Mrs. Garment, who is writing a book on scandal and ethics in Washington.
``The public attitudes about Congress are very low already,'' says Thurber. The charges against Wright ``hurt the image of the entire institution'' of Congress. ``There are a whole lot of people out there who say `See, now we have proof - everybody's on the take.'''
But that isn't true, says Thurber, who points out that there are a lot of hard-working members of Congress who are conducting themselves honorably.
``In the most immediate sense,'' agrees Mr. Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics, ``all this does is increase public cynicism.''
Josephson adds that both Democrats and Republicans use ethics accusations as weaponry, and cites the cases made against Republicans Michael Deaver, Edwin Meese, John Tower, and the accusations beginning to be leveled at Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. The accusations against the Republican whip involve questions about the profit arrangements from the publication of his book. Mr. Gingrich originally was Speaker Wright's chief accuser.
In most ethics accusations ``the motivation is not truly to improve the level of government,'' Josephson says, ``and make it something that the people can respect.'' Rather the motivation, he says, is a desire to gain political advantage, a point not lost on the public.
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct insists that the findings it made public April 17 were reached in thoroughly nonpartisan deliberations. It found that there is ``reason to believe'' that Speaker Wright violated House rules in two general areas. One concerns seven bulk sales of his book, ``Reflections of a Public Man,'' which the committee said ``demonstrated an overall scheme to evade'' the limits on paid honoraria.