making local government more ethical

Congress Teaches Civics Course in Ethics Self-Regulation

Government officials should, I think, focus more on what their actions teach Americans. In effect, each of them is teaching an ongoing civics course.

For many years, Congress have been giving us a course on how self-regulation in the ethics sphere simply doesn't work.

According to an editorial in today's New York Times, the House ethics committee has been without a chief counsel for eight months. Not only that, but this appears to have been kept a secret, as if our representatives were children hiding the peas under their mashed potatoes. Did Congress contract with Soupy Sales to teach its civics course?

The investigation of Rep. Charles Rangel, whom I first wrote about last July (and even then it was hardly breaking news), was supposed to be completed in January. It's now the second half of April.

Yes, there's a quasi-independent Office of Congressional Ethics vetting allegations, providing at least an appearance of some independent input. But our representatives chose not to give it subpoena power, so it's still up to the House and Senate ethics committees to investigate the people they fight and bargain with every day, and then do something (or nothing) about them. And all for the cause of public trust, a cause that seems to slip away from them year by year, if you go by the poll numbers.

Administrations come and go, but legislative bodies don't change in their inability to regulate their members' ethics. They will fight for the right to do this (and spend millions of taxpayers' dollars on it), but what they say they want to do simply cannot be done.

Thank you, Congress, for so consistently, and with so much humor, teaching local legislators, and the citizens who elect them, that self-regulation is not an effective option.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics