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Editorial: The vital issue Congress won’t address
By Lee Hamilton
With the elections over, Congress faces a full plate when it reconvenes. There will be a lot of talk about fiscal matters, “grand bargains,” and sorting out party caucuses. But there’s one vitally important question we’re certain to hear nothing about.
That is Congress’s own behavior -- and more specifically, the behavior of its members. After what may be the most widely panned session in modern congressional history, Capitol Hill ought to use every means possible to rebuild Americans’ trust. Yet striving to ensure the ethical behavior of its members seems to be on no one’s agenda.
Earlier this year, The Washington Post detailed an array of questionable practices, from members trading stock in companies lobbying bills they were considering, to working on legislation that directly affected their financial interests. But what might seem dubious to you or me doesn’t even raise an eyebrow in Congress.
Certainly not at the ethics committees.
In the past couple of years, only two House members have been disciplined for ethical breaches. The Senate committee has sent out four “letters of admonishment.” Ethics watchdogs believe the committees are more interested in protecting members than in overseeing them.
Look, this isn’t complicated. If you’re an ordinary citizen, does these lawmakers’ behavior pass the smell test? Is it okay to use public office to help oneself and one’s family financially? I don’t think so.
Because there is one rule that the ethics committees seem conveniently to have forgotten: It’s the rule that members should always behave in a way that reflects credit on the institution they serve. Instead, what the public sees is an institution that protects its members by holding them to a far lower standard.
This matters at the moment not just because Congress’s credibility is in the tank. Four years ago Congress did act -- though only under great pressure -- to improve its ethical standing. It created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent monitor that has used its scant power effectively to review members’ behavior and recommend action. The OCE seems properly to view congressional office as a public trust.
For the office to continue its work, however, half its board members will need to be replaced by the start of the new congressional term in January, because their terms are expiring. So far, House leaders of both parties -- who are charged with naming the board -- have dragged their heels.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
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