Ethics in Congress Questioned. Some observers say US legislature has a double standard in ethical matters

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

``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.

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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.

``Generally organizations that have power over other groups and organizations don't exercise the power the same way themselves,'' he says.

``Two very dominant themes control most of the decisions I see in Congress,'' Josephson says. ``One is the idealistic agenda, to do what is right. ... The second is to get reelected so that they can do what's right. And this second tends to absorb the first. Whatever gets in the way of that, Congress is against it.''

Part of the reason for the double standards, adds Josephson, is that members of Congress ``are just willing to give themselves the benefit of the doubt when they're not willing to give that to others.'' He cites an example: It's considered permissible for members of Congress to accept an expensive lunch without it compromising their decisions. But that practice is considered unethical for members of the executive branch, who are forbidden to do it.

Questionable ethics by government officials have wide ramifications, Delattre says. When they do things that are ethically questionable, Americans become more skeptical about government, especially young people.

Delattre does not fault Congress for its moral stringency in the cases of former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Defense Secretary-designate John Tower. He says that members of Congress ``are exactly right'' in calling on Cabinet appointees to live up to high standards.

``But there is no justification for claiming that the standards should be higher for them than for congressmen in office. Congress bears the public trust just as much,'' he says.

Double standards exist in other places in society besides Congress, including the news media, adds Josephson. ``People in the press operate under a very similar self-righteousness. They understand their own noble goals,'' insist that there are only a few unethical journalists, and object to any effort by anyone outside the press to set their ethical standards, he says. One example: honorariums. Josephson notes that some journalists receive money for giving speeches before interest groups on which they report. While this is legal, many who accept this money object to revealing who gave it.

In any case, ethical standards for members of Congress are changing, ethicists point out. They say that public exposure of questionable practices is one way to improve standards in the short run.

Delattre offers another approach.

``First of all, Congress should take its own rules seriously'' regarding royalties, honorariums, land purchases, and gifts, he says.

Second, members of Congress who wonder whether their actions are ethically correct should ask themselves if they'd be concerned if the actions became public knowledge. ``If they would be, then don't do it,'' he advises.

More fundamentally, at election time voters ``should look for candidates of wisdom and character. The only way to find out whether a person is really worthy to bear your trust is to do homework. Read the speeches. Look at the person's actual accomplishments. Find out where the campaign money comes from ... what dimensions of the person's private life are known and what sorts of things do they show about his or her judgment, his or her convictions?''

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