Wright Report Highlights Ethics Concerns in Politics. But both parties are now using ethics charges as political weapons
WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
The second is the area of gifts. The committee said Wright ``appears to have accepted nearly $145,000'' in gifts from a friend, George Mallick; it added that it had ``reason to believe'' that Mr. Mallick had ``a direct interest in legislation.''
One of the charges against Wright is that his wife was paid $18,000 a year for several years by a corporation run by Mallick, although in the committee's words ``there is no evidence supporting or establishing'' that the money was ``in return for identifiable services or work products.'' The committee concluded the money was a gift.
Speaker Wright denied wrongdoing and pressed the committee to let him present his case quickly.
Ethical standards and practices in politics today are sufficiently loose ``that if someone wants to find something, to be punitive, there aren't too many politicians'' who can withstand thorough scrutiny, Josephson says.
Gingrich, who filed the original charges against Wright, concurs. At a Monitor breakfast meeting with reporters, he said, ``On a technical level, I think probably everybody'' violates existing ethics rules, largely because they are confusing.
Compared with past scandals - Watergate, Teapot Dome, the corruption of the 1870s Grant administration - the accusations against Speaker Wright are ``minor and petty,'' Josephson says.
Yet they have sent a chill through Congress. ``There must be many of these congressmen who are afraid that the snake will turn around and bite them,'' he says.
There's also a cost for the administration, according to ethics writer Garment. Using ethical issues for political ends makes it harder to attract able people to the executive branch of government. While part of the reason is salary, ``more has to do with the atmosphere and the fear that if they do take office, they will six months later find themselves on the front page ... and lose their reputations.''
Further, the more members of Congress use ethics issues against officials of a presidential administration, the greater likelihood, Garment adds, that an appointee will ``hunker down'' and take as few risks as possible. ``He may be clean as a hound's tooth - and serving the country badly,'' she says.
Yet there will be positive effects as well, Thurber says. Members of Congress will ``have to be a little more careful about a cozy relationship with vested interests'' and pay more attention to the public will, he says.
``Every member of the House with any understanding of what's going on,'' Gingrich says, ``understands that we need to fundamentally reexamine'' existing ethics rules.
``I think there are going to be new [ethics] rules,'' he adds. ``The rules ought to be simple and clear, because that way they are enforceable....
``Congressmen need to be told when they arrive, and their spouses need to be told: `Here are the rules. And if you break them, you are in big trouble.'''
``The Congress is going to be much more careful about the honoraria arrangements that they make,'' adds Josephson. He also foresees ``fewer clever deals'' designed to increase income without quite being illegal.
And he expects that members of Congress will be ``extremely careful'' about the finances of their spouses.