Clearsighted ethics

Some one-third of the incoming class of the 107th Congress are millionaires. That's not surprising, what with the cost of running for office getting higher. These new public servants arrive in Washington with large and diversified portfolios for their private financial investments.

Moreover, they'll be joining the ranks of some 100 other multimillionaire senators and representatives on Capitol Hill.

Is the presence of so many well-heeled lawmakers cause for concern? Most, certainly, are committed to their public tasks. But an ethical issue looms here.

A lawmaker's vote could affect the performance of their stocks and other holdings. Several members own large amounts of stock in communications, high-tech, or health-care companies, for example; others had direct connections to lobbying firms.

Simply claiming freedom from influence, or that no conflicts of interest arise from these often substantial financial stakes isn't enough. To help keep the voting in Congress on the up and up, assets need not only to be disclosed - they need to be put in blind trusts, where investment decisions are supposedly made without the owner's knowledge.

A few members have voluntarily put their assets in blind trusts. Others should follow suit. This isn't a perfect solution. Not all blind trusts are blind. Their effectiveness depends on the members' own good-faith commitment to honesty. As Gary Ruskin, of the Congressional Accountability Project, a public oversight group, says, much depends on "whether the member honestly wants them to be blind."

Until lax rules in the Senate (especially) and the House regarding potential conflicts of interest are changed, this voluntary move should reduce the appearance of such conflicts and help ensure the fair conduct of the public's business.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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