One More Addition to 2010’s Worst in Ethics: Sen. John McCain

I inadvertently left a category out of the Ethics Alarms year end awards for 2010, perhaps because it is such a discouraging one. I just remedied the omission, and added this:

Integrity Meltdown of the Year: Sen. John McCain. A sad spectacle indeed: since losing his run for the presidency in 2008 and having to face a strong challenge from the Right in seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate, the celebrated Arizona maverick reversed long-held positions in favor of creating a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants, reversing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and ending the low Bush tax rates on upper-income Americans. He didn’t change his mind because of sudden epiphanies of clarity, either. He just wants to stay in the Senate. True, McCain held fast to other principles, like opposing earmarks, but those were the ones his critics on the Right supported too. Integrity means being true to your core values even when it is inconvenient or unpopular. Once upon a time, that description fit Sen. John McCain. As of 2010, this was no longer true.

Campaign Contributions During Key Votes: Call It Bribery

The quote from Sen. Max Baucus’s spokeperson instantly becomes a leading candidate for “Lie of the Year.”

“Money has no influence on how Senator Baucus (D-Montana) makes his decisions,” Kate Downen told the Washington Post. “The only factor that determines Senator Baucus’s votes is whether a policy is right for Montana and right for our country.” Is there any American so naive as to still believe this, not just about Baucus but about any member of Congress? The Post reports that despite Senate and House rules forbidding it, campaign contributions routinely spike when important bills are about to be voted upon. The sources of the sudden gifts to the lawmakers? Individuals, organizations and corporations who will benefit from the law’s passage or defeat. Continue reading

Omnibus Spending Bill Ethics

One silver lining in the despicable, 2000 page omnibus spending bill unveiled by Senate Democrats is that Republicans also have their grubby fingerprints all over it, so even though the bill lumps together a huge and expensive mess of pet Democratic projects, the richly deserved attacks on the monstrosity cannot be easily derided as “partisan.” Another is that it should put to bed forever the revolting slander that  the Tea Party movement was motivated by racism when it proclaimed that it wanted its country back. If there was ever a democratic institution that demonstrated utter contempt for the public, its legitimate and fervently expressed concerns, and the obligation of responsible government, the 2010 Lame Duck Congress is it. Continue reading

The Democrats, Earmarks, and the Transparency Dodge

The arguments for continuing the irresponsible and frequently corrupt earmark process are misguided at best, and dishonest at worst. Mostly they are dishonest, Senators and House members graft appropriations in the millions for local projects that are never weighed, prioritized or evaluated in the voting process, killing budget restraint by a thousand cuts. They are also used as legislative currency, as two elected officials trade one irresponsible expenditure for a dubious state project for another.

Earmarks are an invitation to corruption, as they often are the result of thinly veiled quid pro quo arrangements. The device makes the American taxpayer the underwriter of expenditures that often have no greater purpose than to grease the skid for re-election for one more fiscally irresponsible politician. For decades, U.S. Presidents have complained about them; most since Ronald Reagan argued for the Constitutionally problematic line-item veto to combat them. Now, spurred by the recent voter revolt over out-of-control spending, the Republican Caucus in the Senate has voted to ban earmarks. The full Senate, however, with eight Republicans joining with the earmark-happy Democrats, voted down a proposed moratorium. Continue reading

The Unethical Message of the Dems’ “Hypocrisy Defense”

The response of the Democratic Party to their recent flood of ethics embarrassments tells us all we need to know about why the ethics problems exist in this Congress and will doubtless continue. It has, predictably, resorted to the time-tested, playground strategy I like to call the “Hypocrisy Defense,” which aims at avoiding accountability by accusing the accusers. Other names for the Hypocrisy Defense: “Changing the Subject,” “The Incorrigible Scoundrel’s Last Hope,” “The Guilty Condemning the Convicted,” and “Making Yourself Look Less Dirty By Throwing Mud on the Other Guy.” If that’s the best you have, all it shows is that your accusers, hypocritical or not, are telling the truth. Because when you accuse the pot of calling the kettle black, its still means that you are a filthy kettle. Continue reading

“Trust Us, It Only LOOKS like Bribery!”

Imagine, if you will, that I post an enthusiastic testimonial to the superior depilatory virtues of  Braun electric razors as compared to Norelco Triple-headers. Then suppose that you learn that, prior to the publication of my pro-Braun rave, Braun had sent Ethics Alarms a generous contribution “to support its good works in support of ethical consciousness.” Not only that, but also imagine that this contribution was brokered by an organization paid by Braun because it guaranteed that it could get good reviews of for its clients’ products on ethics websites. If I subsequently claimed that my razor review rave and the felicitous gift from Braun were absolutely unrelated, that I recommended Braun’s razor purely because of the product’s wonderful qualities  was influenced not one whit by the payola and the implicit promise of more, would you believe me?

If you would, you would be…well, I think the technical term would be “an idiot.” Yet that is the gist of the most recent outrage from the House of Representatives ethics committee, which  issued a report clearing the late Rep. John Murtha as well as Reps. Jim Moran (D-VA), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Norm Dicks (D-WA),  Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), Todd Tahrt (R-Kan.) and Rep. Bill Young (R-FL) of acquiring lucrative earmarks for government contractors after the same contractors had sent them huge “contributions.”  Continue reading

Of Presidents Day, Atticus, a Congressman’s Dilemma and Serial Moms

Short Alarms:

  • With increasing numbers of young Americans knowing embarrassingly little about our nation’s past, the wrong-headedness of President’s Day rankles worse than ever. Rather then designate the February birthdays of our two greatest presidents—Washington, the “indispensable man” who made the United States a reality, and Lincoln, the brilliant leader/philosopher who kept it from tearing apart—as yearly commemorations of their remarkable lives and our debt to them, Congress lumped them into a generic “Presidents Day,” thereby demonstrating that it deemed a three-day weekend and consumer merchandise sales more important than our heritage. Worst of all for ethics fans, George, who “wouldn’t tell a lie,” and Honest Abe are the only U.S. Presidents remembered for their truthfulness. Yet here they are, forced to share their “day” with the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Harding, J.F.K, L.B.J., Tricky Dick and Bill Clinton. The right thing to do would be to go back to celebrating February 12 and 22. Washington and Lincoln deserve it, and so do the values they stood for.
  • Speaking of ethics icons, one of my wife’s favorites,”To Kill A Mockingbird’s” Atticus Finch, has been under attack in some quarters for being passively acquiescent in the Jim Crow morality that convicts his black client despite overwhelming evidence that he is innocent. Continue reading

The 2009 Ethics Alarms Awards, Part 2: The Best

The Best in Ethics of 2009. May the 2010 list be longer!

Most Important Ethical Act of the Year: President Barack Obama’s executive order banning torture. The Declaration of Independence already did it once, but the President was right: we needed some reminding.

Ethical Leadership: Howard County, MD, which launched a “Choose Civility” campaign based on the book Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct, by Johns Hopkins University Professor Dr. P.M. Forni. The effort attracted national attention, and has sparked similar movements around the country. Continue reading

What Congress calls “Ethical”

Of all the ethically brain-dead comments I have heard from politicians over the years, Steny Hoyer (D-MD ) the House Majority Leader, might take the trophy. In the wake of an unintentional leak of House Ethics Committee records showing that nearly 30 Democrats were under investigation, Hoyer made the stunning statement that this shows the Democrats are living up to their promise to run the “most ethical” Congress in history.

If I can stop sputtering long enough to type, let me clarify for the Congressman. The most ethical Congress is not the one with the most ethics investigations. It is the one with the fewest members whose conduct warrant investigation for wrongdoing. If Hoyer’s reasoning wa accurate, then the safest U.S. city would be the one with the most murder investigations. The most honorable West Point class would be the one undergoing the most cheating inquiries. The most environmentally responsible corporation would be the one that was being investigated for the most alleged dumping infractions. In short, what the heck is Hoyer talking about? Is he that stupid, or does he think we are?

This Congress just had a former member, William Jeffferson, convicted of taking bribes after $90,000 was found in his freezer.  This Congress has a Ways and Means Chairman, Rep. Charles Rangel, who admittedly has failed to report large amounts of money to the IRS (note that Ways and Means writes tax legislation), and that is just the latest of his ethics problems. This Congress is looking at a massive lobbying scandal of Abramoff proportions, with clients of the lobbying firm The PMA Group, staffed with former employees of defense appropriators,  winning defense-bill earmarks for its clients to the tune of nearly $300 million, thanks to dubious relationships with seven of the 16 members of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee—including the five most senior Democrats on the panel and the top Republican.

There’s more of that unsavory stuff being looked at by the Ethics Committee, but  lot of serious ethical misconduct isn’t  thought of that way, because it doesn’t involve obvious corruption. This Congress became the only one in history to have a member, Joe Wilson (R-SC) insult (“You lie!”) the President of the United States in the middle of a speech. This Congress had another member, Allan Grayson, call a female advisor to the Fed Chief a “whore.” This Congress has a Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who has called the CIA liars and impugned the integrity of American citizens who have demonstrated against her policies or questioned her health care bill.

Can one of the most uncivil, disrespectful, undignified and partisan Congresses in history also be the “most ethical”? Only to someone who doesn’t know what ethical is…such as, I fear, Steny Hoyer.

Is it ethical  for legislators to vote for revolutionary, expensive legislation that they haven’t read, an outrageous dereliction of responsibility and diligence that is not only rampant in this Congress, but shameless.? Is it ethical for legislators to stuff bills with budget-busting earmarks, and resist the efforts of members who attempt to make the process transparent and rare?

Cynics among you might argue that Hoyer could still be right, that this could be “the most ethical Congress” and still be a cesspool, given the competition. But to qualify as most ethical (as opposed to “least unethical”), there has to be some evidence of ethical conduct, and having ongoing investigations of a welter of unethical conduct by members isn’t it.

What would be evidence of an ethical Congress? Honesty and transparency with earmarks. Competency and responsiblity, meaning the production of bills that aren’t 2000 pages long (like the current House health care legislation), and no member voting for a bill he or she hasn’t read and understood. Accountability, requiring a member like Rep. Rangel to resign his Chairmanship before any ruling by the Ethics Committee, since the facts of his tax misconduct are very clear, and they alone disqualify him from his powerful Ways and Means post.

A truly ethical Congress wouldn’t have anything for the Ethics Committee to investigate.

No, Hoyer isn’t stupid. He is just permanently addled by too much exposure to Washington’s warped definition of ethical, which is defined in the Capitol as what you can get away with without being disgraced or punished. Until Congress develops higher standards than that, boasting about the “most ethical Congress” makes as much sense as arguing about who owns the most articulate cow.