WASHINGTON — ONE of the key players in putting together higher ethics standards for Congress 10 years ago says that today's Congress ``is a whole lot cleaner than it was before I came.'' Rep. David R. Obey (D) of Wisconsin adds that ``this Congress is every bit as clean as the average corporation, every bit as clean as the average newsroom. I think we're about average'' in the US today. Nonetheless, he told reporters at a Monitor breakfast that he would like to see congressional standards raised so they are above average.
In Congress overall ``I think the standards are rising,'' Representative Obey says. ``I think the nation's standards are rising in terms of what [citizens] expect of members' financial'' activities.
Mr. Obey says he suspects that House majority leader Thomas Foley (D) of Washington will propose new ethics or campaign financing rules if he succeeds Jim Wright as Speaker of the House, as expected. ``No matter what we do on ethics,'' Obey adds, ``the important thing for us, after we do that, is to get back'' to the major issues facing the United States. He says these include appropriations, drug traffic, trade, and the FSX airplane.
Obey accuses Republican whip Newt Gingrich and other House Republicans of ``ethical McCarthyism,'' in asserting that nine or 10 additional Democrats are vulnerable on ethics issues, and in indicating that Republicans can be expected to make ethics accusations against them.
``The best way to deal with'' such charges is ``to get about our business'' of dealing with America's problems, Obey says. He adds that it is neither constructive nor ``politically smart'' to engage in a vendetta against Mr. Gingrich on ethics issues: ``I think we've got more important things to do than deal with Newt Gingrich.''
The current process for examining ethics charges against representatives is ``deeply flawed,'' Obey says, because it forces members of the House Committee on Standards to act first as prosecutors, then as judges, in assessing the case against accused House members. Even if human nature permitted such a shift, persons who stand accused would already be judged guilty in the press, he adds.
Obey's recommendation: Eliminate the first prosecutorial stage of the investigation against an accused member. An inquiry instead should move directly to the second phase, in which committee members act as judges to determine whether clear evidence exists that wrongdoing has occurred.