making local government more ethical

Congress Makes a Pitch for Poor Ethics

Congressmen and -women sometimes act as if they didn't know the first thing about government ethics. Even when their actions are more in the public eye than usual, many of them unnecessarily, and selfishly, do the wrong thing.

This week, Congress seems to be all about Roger Clemens, who is definitely of more interest than health care, the economy, or Iraq. And what did 25 of the 40 members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform do before providing oversight over Roger Clemens? They met with him individually and, it appears, some of them and their staff members asked for or accepted autographs in addition to smiles and stories.

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Why would a House member meet alone with someone they were about to examine? To get his side of the story? That’s what the hearing was for.

One House member who refused to meet with Clemens told the New York Times, “He’s wandering around the Hill like it’s a campaign. It’s unseemly.”

But what Clemens did is not half as unseemly as the House members' decision to meet with him. One member said after meeting with Clemens that it was mostly anecdotal, but would help her evaluate his testimony. “My staff told me, ‘Don’t do this,’ but I said, ‘No, I really want to.’”

Of course she wanted to. Who wouldn’t want to meet Roger Clemens? Who wouldn’t want his autograph? Ethics is saying, I want to meet him in person, but I shouldn’t. It’s the wrong thing to do (as the Congresswoman’s staff correctly told her), and it also sends the wrong message: that when the perks of the job conflict with the responsibilities of the job, the perks take precedence.

There’s a lot of talk in the Times article about taking and soliciting gifts, the legal side of the matter. You don’t even need to get there. No House member should have even been in a position to turn down an autograph from this particular pitcher.

One “ethics expert” told the Times that people who violate the gift rule can “take care of it by returning the items to Clemens.” No, actually they can’t. You can return a gift that’s sent to you, but when it’s handed to you, you just say, “No, I can’t take that. I’m examining you tomorrow.” After the hearing, sending back the gift is meaningless, the damage has already been done, you've already been too easy on the guy because you felt a personal relationship with him.

The other thing that House members don’t seem to get is that there is a big difference between accepting any celebrity’s autograph and accepting the autograph of a celebrity that’s coming before you that week as part of your oversight duties. The first is a minor gift problem, the second is a bribery problem.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics