When Washington, D.C. attorney Robert Trout delivered his closing argument in the trial of former Rep. William Jefferson (now known as “Inmate CB476881”) for, among other things, accepting a large cash bribe that was later found in his office freezer, he told the jury that the prosecution was hypocritical and unfair. After all, he said, “If seeking political help was a crime, you could lock up half of metropolitan Washington, D.C.” Jefferson’s actions may have been unethical, and they were certainly a mistake, but really now: isn’t this just what all Congressmen do? Jefferson, Trout argued, just got a little bit carried away.
Jefferson was convicted, so there is some distance left for our faith in our elected representatives to fall before it hits rock bottom. The argument was still ethically disturbing in two respects. First of all, Trout’s pitch amounted to a jury nullification plea, a defense in which a jury is encouraged to ignore the law, and that is unethical lawyering.
Second, Trout may well have been right.
The New York Times reported last week that the official record of the House of Representatives’ debate on the health care bill included statements by more than a dozen lawmakers completely or partially ghostwritten by lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies. The lobbyists drafted one statement for Democrats and another for Republicans, and the representatives entered them in the record as their own words—even when they were identical to the statements of their colleagues.
This story caused hardly a ripple in the media, perhaps because it implicated Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and the number of papers, websites and TV news programs that aren’t protecting and promoting at least one of these is depressingly small. It should have caused an uproar, however. As much as any recent scandal on Capitol Hill, as much as the disgraceful spectacle, today being repeated in the Senate, of lawmakers arguing for and supporting a massive piece of legislation that they personally haven’t read and couldn’t possibly comprehend (because many of them just aren’t very bright, and because the bills would be incomprehensible to them even if they were), that so many members of Congress allowed their names to be attached to a corporation’s hand-crafted political positions signals that the current U.S. version of democracy is perverted and corrupt to its core.
Here is what it tells me about the current ethical standards in Congress:
- Not only do members of Congress lack any sense of pride, honor or integrity, they don’t believe that pride, honor or integrity are important enough to even pretend to possess. On an issue that involves trillions of dollars, millions of lives, core American principles and major philosophical principles about the role of government, these representatives relied on an interested corporation to make their arguments for them, and didn’t care who knew it.
- These members of Congress are completely bought and paid for. They don’t just have conflicts of interest; their real interests are plain and related: stay in power, and get as much money from lobbyists to do that. This would be a terrible conflict of interest with their supposed duty of serving their constituents and the nation, but since they obviously don’t care about that at all, it isn’t much of a conflict, is it?
- Members of Congress have complete contempt for their constituencies and fellow citizens, who they know can’t be bothered to follow their “work” closely and certainly won’t read the Congressional record, which is usually as interesting as watching Regis Philbin with the sound off. Because they respect neither their office nor those who elected them, they don’t feel that it’s necessary to even hide the fact that they are lazy, greedy, and incompetent.
- If the constituencies of these representatives are not apathetic and worthy of their elected representatives’ contempt, they should vote out every single member who was a willing mouthpiece for Genentech in the health care debate, regardless of how he or she voted.
The Times story included two traditional and predictable ethics howlers. A lobbyist involved in the Congressional ventriloquism was quoted thusly:
“This happens all the time. There was nothing nefarious about it.”
Is his point that we shouldn’t regard this nauseating conduct as nefarious because it is “done all the time,” or that the fact that it is done all the time proves it isn’t nefarious? Many, many terrible, illegal, or unethical things are done all the time. His statement shows the quality of ethical analysis that is practiced on Capitol Hill, which is essentially the same as that of Mack the Knife.
The second quote was equally absurd. Noting that—and I’m sure this comes as a shock—the representatives who used the ghostwritten statements receive, have received, and will receive campaign contributions from the company, the Times quoted Evan L. Morris, head of Genentech’s Washington office. He said,
“There was no connection between the contributions and the statements.”
Inmate CB476881 should demand a new trial.