Congressional Ethics as Partisan Warfare

Written on May 4, 2015

I just saw this article about how Congressional ethics committee investigations are on the rise. I don’t know if I think this is a good idea.

The idea that Congressional ethics make Congress ‘better’ seems more controversial than most people would let on. Some of the most productive legislators were considered “corrupt.” John Murtha, Dan Rostenkowski, and even Wilbur Mills had personal corruption issues. The question becomes, to me anyway, what is the point of ethics investigations in Congress? How are they supposed to make Congress ‘better’?

Is the point that the United States should hold members of Congress to some moral standard through strict regulations? To ensure that incorruptible men and women represent their constituents morally? Okay, maybe, but that just makes the act of ‘doing corruption’ more complicated. The more or less honest MCs who wish to do right by their constituents will get punished while those with “wheelbarrows of money” or just try to use public service to enrich themselves will be more vigilant in ensuring that their corruption passes the muster test and are able to get away with it.

Is the point to ensure that moneyed interests don’t have too much influence? If so, what a failure. What is the point of not allowing gifts to individual MCs but letting outside groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars on their elections? While that isn’t necessarily Congress’ fault, they have done little to stop it.

The fact of the matter is that modern ethics violations are tools of the partisan warrior, used to tar and feather the other side. The good old boys have been purged even though they were among the most ideologically moderate and desired to make deals. The dealmakers of old no longer really exist and what’s more, they have been replaced with ideologues. The thing about the casually corrupt is that they were the ones who got things done. They passed president’s agenda. They made laws. They created the Great Society and the New Deal. Maybe they bestowed some inappropriate benefits to their constituents or their friends and family along the way but the sum of their efforts resulted in a net positive.

No one even wants to serve on the spending committees anymore because those committees can’t really do much. Those focused on “ideas” have paralyzed Congress with their ideological purity. They refuse to work together and have made the horse trading needed to pass legislation impossible.

This not only affects inter-party relations but the intra-party as well. Even though Senate Majority Leader McConnell isn’t a deal maker like old time Senators were, he is relative to his colleagues. Any time he tries to work with the President, the ideological wing of his party will go after him — the man who said that his main goal was to defeat Barack Obama has enraged the GOP for trying to govern. If, instead, they focused on governing instead of appealing to national ideologues, then everyone could have made a deal, and everyone could have gotten something they desired.

The worst part about targeting people like John Murtha or Dan Rostenkowski is that they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. It was just part of doing business. They were low hanging fruit. Does Congress work better because they’re gone? No.