Keeping Ethics in the House

Over the holidays, Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives considered axing a general rule of conduct. The rule requires a member to "conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House."

But on the eve of the opening of the 109th Congress Tuesday, they thought better of it. The reason? The proposition generated so much controversy "it was becoming a distraction," said a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois.

Political and citizen pressure pushed the leadership in the right direction here. But more than politics argued for keeping the guideline.

Federal judges, the military, and many businesses have similar general codes of ethics. Yet the Republican leaders had faulted the vagueness of the rule, saying it could be abused for political witch hunts. They pointed to the House Ethics Committee's admonishment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas last fall as an example.

On the basis of that rule, Mr. DeLay was criticized by the panel for the appearance of favorable treatment of a lobbyist, for an "improper" offer to another lawmaker for a vote, and for intervening with a federal agency to settle a political dispute in Texas.

A fat, red handbook details House rules on ethics, and the GOP leaders figured a general code was overkill. But it's impossible to conceive of every possible scenario to warn against. An overarching standard can cover the unforeseen.

More important, if ethics is reduced to a mere list of unacceptable actions, it becomes confused with law. Lord Moulton, a British jurist, articulated this distinction early last century when he defined ethics as "obedience to the unenforceable." Ethics governs society's moral standards, a realm the law can't always reach.

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