There is only one way to avoid future brawls over ethics in Congress like the ones going on now, and it is not–as GOP Congresswoman Sue Myrick from North Carolina has proposed–to make it a crime to “lie” in campaign ads or on the floor of Congress. When such a law is passed, Congressmen will be arresting each other literally right and left, until there’s no one around to run the country. Rather, the sane solution heads in the opposite direction: admit that scandal-mongering has become a degenerative disease of democracy and rewrite our over-regulatory laws to give politicians some slack. Allow more room for conflicting interpretations of political “truth” and reduce penalties to a point that a legislator is not threatened with ruin for a minor failing. Towering cases of real corruption might be more visible in our system if we did not permit puny underbrush to obstruct the view.
Representative government accepts that people with different philosophies and different stakes are going to see things differently. Politics is supposed to make a virtue of these disagreements so that voters can make up their own minds at election time. However, what the current ethics laws and regulations do is change politics from a game where the point is to impress public opinion at election time to one whose purpose is to destroy the opposition personally in a legal setting. The problem goes back a generation or more, but it is getting worse. As we are seeing, even the House Ethics Committee, which has standing only under House rules and is not a court, can become so preoccupied with legal-sounding procedural issues that members from the two parties can hardly speak to each other any more, let alone work together. Cooperation on any subject is now endangered.
It needs saying that citizens as well as politicians bring their biases to these matters. For all of us, there are three mental and moral exercises that might help bring such bias to the surface and put issues into proper perspective. The first is to imagine a reversal of identities in the parties to a given conflict and see if, in that case, one would feel the same way. For example, if a Democrat, instead of Newt Gingrich, had raised money for a non-profit organization to finance a college course with what some people could interpret as a partisan point of view, would that have been seen as seriously reprehensible? If a Republican member of Congress had distributed a tape of a cellular phone call to friendly news media, as Rep. Jim McDermott is accused of doing, would that be have been seen as materially different?
Secondly, one can ask in these ethics cases how a particular standard applied to politicians would look if it were applied to critics in the media. It supposedly is terrible if a politician “misleads” his collegues. But media commentators mislead the public quite often, for roughly similar reasons: ignorance, prejudice, stress, time pressure, recklessness. You could hardly hold a Sunday TV talk show anymore if the shouting heads were held legally responsible for their veracity. Why, to use another example, is it reprehensible that Jim McDermott passed along an illicit phone tape to the New York Times (if indeed he did), while there is no discussion at all about the propriety of the Times’ publishing a transcript of it? Do we only care about violations of privacy by private citizens and politicians, never by the media?
Third, one might explore the practical circumstances and conequences, not just the formal cause, of the alleged ethical misbehavior. Circumstances and consequences count. Did someone abuse his office for personal gain, or was it a mainly political maneuver? Who was really hurt, how much and in what way? Gingrich’s course wound up being non-partisan, in fact, and was never used for the Speaker’s financial advantage. His “misleading” paperwork submitted to the Ethics Committee, though wrong, related to a non-crime. Likewise, McDermott’s supposed delivery of a telephone tape to The New York Times was a political blunder more than a crime, an ethics weapon that backfired.
If all sides in Congress could declare a temporary truce, they might spend some time trying to reform the ethics laws and regulations so that petty infractions are given only proportionate punishment. Under more realistic rules, the legal payoff for exaggerating scandals necessarily would diminish (for media as well as politicians) and today’s gladiators-to-the-death would become merely happy warriors, their conflicts ritualized in more traditional parliamentary forms. The business of government could proceed on its more or less dignified course. Politics as usual. It actually would be a relief.