What Happened to Ethics on the Hill?
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Members of the House of Representatives are back in Washington after their Thanksgiving break. And along with the budget and the war in Iraq, they also have to deal with the fallout from some ethical issues. NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr says Congress needs to find its footing again when it comes to matters of ethics.
Ex-Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham is a certified war hero, a Navy jet pilot in the Vietnam War. And yet such is the culture of corruption in Congress that neither patriotism nor piety deterred him from accepting $2.4 million in bribes, a Rolls-Royce car and the use of a yacht mainly from defense contractors.
Such also is the culture of corruption that Congress has all but given up on its constitutional duty to police itself. The last punitive action, if that's the word, by the House Ethics Committee was in October of last year when it admonished House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for the third time for financial irregularities. Since that time DeLay has been indicted by a grand jury. Seven other legislators are in various stages of investigation, indictment or plea bargaining. One could open an investigative office just to track the money that flowed from ace lobbyist Jack Abramoff to various members of Congress in acknowledgment of legislative favors.
But the congressional ethics committees, which should have primary responsibility, watch from the sidelines. Senator John McCain said, `I don't think the ethics committees are working very well. The latest Cunningham scandal was uncovered by the San Diego newspaper, not by anyone here.' The ethics committees, the only congressional committees that have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, have for the past 14 months been mainly preoccupied with fighting over chairmanship and staffing.
The committees have some notable acts in their history, including criticism of two House speakers, Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Jim Wright. But in recent times congressional self-regulation does not seem to work. This is Daniel Schorr.
SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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