Ethics in Congress Questioned. Some observers say US legislature has a double standard in ethical matters
A LARGER ethics issue is beginning to loom in Washington beyond the questions of the activities of House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas, and House leaders Tony Coelho (D) of California and Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia: Does Congress routinely reserve a double standard on ethics for itself, acting in ways that it forbids to others in government? ``Definitely yes,'' says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics.Skip to next paragraph
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``Much of what Congress does from day to day would, if done by the executive branch, be conflict of interest,'' agrees Suzanne Garment, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute.
``An obvious case'' is honorariums, says Edwin Delattre, Bradley Fellow in Applied Ethics at the American Enterprise Institute. Most members of Congress accept money from special-interest groups for giving speeches or just attending functions; yet members of the executive branch of government are forbidden from taking honorariums. President Bush's ethics proposal now before Congress would similarly forbid federal judges from accepting honorariums but would not affect Congress.
Last year members of Congress were paid more than $2 million in honorariums, according to Common Cause. From 1982 through '87 members of Congress were paid $31.3 million in honorariums, the organization adds.
Mr. Delattre ticks off other examples of congressional double standards. Congress in recent years has tacked amendments on bills to provide top staff aides with a 10 percent pay raise while others in government received 2 percent. Members of Congress in the past have been permitted to use campaign funds for private purposes, and some still are allowed to do it. ``A disgrace,'' Delattre says. Until recently Congress exempted itself from laws that require private employers to pay higher amounts for overtime work.
Finally, campaign contributions are frequently being questioned.
Some contributors ``feel they get more of a hearing when they make contributions,'' Delattre notes. ``The problem is you are supposed to consider things on their merit.'' A campaign contribution should not provide the access to lawmakers that noncontributing Americans lack, he says.
These kinds of double standards are improper, Delattre insists. The same standard of ethics should be applied across the board.
``The central thing to understand is that ethics is ethics, everywhere and always,'' he says.
Delattre says that what makes a person honorable or otherwise is the same whether the person is in Congress, the executive branch of government, private industry, or the press. ``Integrity is to a person what homogenization is to milk. It means one thing, through and through.''
Members of Congress don't see it that way, Mr. Josephson notes. Many ``genuinely believe that they are in a different position'' from others in government, or in private industry, he says. ``But of course everyone says that and would make different rules for themselves if they had the power.''
Americans should not be surprised at congressional double standards because they are in line with the way many powerful organizations operate, Josephson adds.