ETHICS investigations generate a certain amount of glee in Washington, as politicians of opposing stripes try to make good on the misjudgments, and possibly misdeeds, of their colleagues in government. The partisan euphoria, however, masks the real import of these investigations: that the American system of government has over the years acquired mechanisms for inspecting itself and probing questionable behavior. These mechanisms may not be perfect, but they do help keep public cynicism about government, always ready to pour forth, within bounds.
That has been the case in the independent counsel investigation of Attorney General Edwin Meese, and it's the case in the decision of the House Ethics Committee to investigate allegations against Speaker Jim Wright.
Congress has often been criticized for its inability to police itself. Ethics procedures were tightened somewhat during the reforms of the 1970s. The Wright affair now turns an intense spotlight on lawmakers' willingness to take an honest, objective look at the dealings of a very powerful congressional colleague.
In the Speaker's case - which is heavy with political implications for the Democratic Party - the need for objectivity and thoroughness is doubly clear. The body of allegations raised against Mr. Wright, mainly through pulling together newspaper clippings over recent years, would seem, at the least, to cast doubts on his judgment. His book deal, for instance, with its 55 percent royalties for the author, appears to have been a pretty slick way of parlaying fame and political ties into a tidy bit of cash. It's the sort of thing that makes the average guy wince at politics. But did it violate House ethics rules? That's what the committee's probe will have to resolve.
For the sake of public trust, the committee should bring in an independent investigator for the Wright case. Without that strong note of objectivity, suspicions of politicking would be hard to put down.
We don't, incidentally, buy the view that politics is necessarily seamy. It has a built-in means of curbing unethical behavior - the next election. Accordingly, the mechanisms the United States Constitution provides for elective officials differ from those for appointed ones. Ideally, the voters check up on members of Congress every two or six years. Jim Wright ultimately has to justify his actions to his constituents back in Texas.
Of course, you wouldn't have to look too far to find some longtime incumbents who are consistently returned to office despite some blotches on their records. It should reassure Americans that other means, designed to examine a lawmaker's behavior apart from the realm of political influence, are in place and can be strengthened as experience dictates.