Given what members of Congress get away with these days, it takes a lot to break House ethics rules. But that’s what a House ethics subcommittee has accused 20-term Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., of doing. Rangel might have avoided a trial had he admitted to any of the charges against him, but after 40 years in Congress, it’s as if he sees himself as invincible. Rangel will face a jury of his congressional peers, which, to some, might look a lot like organized crime members trying one of their own.
According to the Washington Post, ethics inquiries are focused on Rangel’s ‘‘failure to declare $239,000 to $831,000 in assets on his disclosure forms, and on his effort to raise money for a private center named after himself at City College of New York using his congressional letterhead.’’ Voters might consider these small potatoes compared to running up the national debt into the trillions of dollars, but the public will have its say on that larger question in November.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to stop unethical behavior if Democrats were given a majority. They were and she didn’t. She said she would ‘‘drain the swamp.’’ Instead, the swamp increasingly resembles a hot tub.
Again, it’s not what’s unethical, but apparently what some members consider ethical that should anger taxpayers. For example, are you OK with House members, over a nine-month period between late 2009 and early 2010, spending $604,000 for bottled water? The purchase is among a long list of questionable expenditures discovered in an audit by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation. Taxpayers might ask why thirsty House members don’t drink from the faucet like most people in Washington, D.C. If members think tap water doesn’t meet their standards, they can buy cheap filters.
Some Republicans are salivating over Democratic spending and ethical lapses, but before they run on fiscal restraint and personal morality, they should remember such former and current colleagues named DeLay, Cunningham, Ney, Foley, Lewis, Burns, Stevens, Craig, Vitter, Miller and Renzi. These — and others — were tainted by scandal while Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. Republicans had promised to clean up the ‘‘corruption’’ from 40 years of House control by the Democrats. Instead, many jumped into the hot tub.
There is an old disease in Washington called Potomac Fever. It does not discriminate between parties. When voters toss out one infected party and replace it with another that promises not to acquire the disease, the new guys also catch it.
The challenge for Republicans, who are ahead in polls for the November election, is to promise voters they won’t repeat their mistakes of the recent past. That can be like walking into a town gripped by a communicable disease and vowing not to get it. Properly inoculated, Republicans can resist Potomac Fever. The question is how.
Term limits seems the best medicine, but unless Democrats agree to limit their terms, Republicans would rightly see this as unilateral surrender. Controlling the flow of money and the influence of lobbyists would be another form of protection and the House and Senate ethics committees have tried that to some extent, but the unethical always find a way to circumvent rules.
All trips underwritten by corporations and lobbyists should be banned. Any member who wishes to travel should seek authorization from an oversight committee specifically designated to approve such things. This would include travel on military jets, which cost more than commercial airlines. Taxpayers should only pay for travel that is necessary and relevant to the member’s job. Spouses should travel at their own expense. All travel expenses, along with the purpose of the trip and the member’s schedule, should be posted on a special website for public viewing. Last May, the House tightened its travel rules, but not enough. Rules for Senate travel resemble the old and looser House rules.
If Republicans are to benefit from Rangel’s alleged ethics violations, they must prove they are serious about cleaning up their own House (and Senate). ‘‘He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.’’ That admonition doesn’t give Republicans permission at the moment to pick up even a pebble.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at email@example.com.