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Lawmaker ethics. An oxymoron?

Democrats promised to make Congress more ethical. Did they succeed? A little ... maybe.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2008


A decisive issue in the 2006 congressional campaign – corruption in Washington – now falls well behind gas prices and the economy as a theme in Campaign 2008, and reformers are worried.

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The landmark reforms adopted early in the 110th Congress set a higher ethical bar for members of Congress. But with public interest on ethical issues cooling, activists worry that lawmakers are already finding ways around the new rules and that reforms needed to continue the process will not be forthcoming in the next Congress.

"It's unclear if the new rules have fundamentally changed the climate in Washington," says Keith Ashdown with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based think tank.

"Corruption and ethics still matter – just ask someone in Alaska – but it's a second-tier issue to the economy," he says. The key question is whether "the leadership remembers to follow up on the strides they made in reforming how Congress does its business."

There's no lack of high-profile corruption cases on Capitol Hill. Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska faces charges of filing false financial disclosure reports on some $250,000 in gifts from an oil services company. Mr. Stevens also faces a tough primary race on Aug. 26.

Rep. William Jefferson (D) of Louisiana is fighting a 16-count indictment for racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and soliciting bribes. Rep. Rick Renzi (R) of Arizona has been indicted on federal fraud charges over an allegedly illegal land deal that benefited family interests. And retiring Rep. John Doolittle (R) of California, who has not been charged with a crime, is one of an unspecified number of lawmakers caught up in an ongoing federal investigation involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But reformers on and off Capitol Hill say that these cases were not aggressively pursued by the ethics committees in Congress – a sign that the old culture is persisting.

"Some of these cases are from conduct that's been ongoing for a long time. The ethics committees showed they didn't care, but the Justice Department shows that it does care," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

"On the margins, people are more careful. I don't think right now anybody would take a private golf trip to Scotland," she says, referring to a notorious Abramoff-sponsored trip in 2000 that included then-House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas. "But in a couple of years, if no one pays attention, I wouldn't be surprised to see it come back up."