Congress Takes Up Discussion of Ethics Rules

The Democrats took control of Congress helped by a wave of voter frustration with corruption. As the new leadership votes on tougher ethics rules this week, Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE) argues that the new restrictions don't go far enough.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

One issue that helped put Democrats in control of the U.S. Congress today was corruption. Even more than the much-cited War in Iraq, voters last November complained about what Democrats called a culture of corruption. Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, has promised to move quickly to pass a new ethics rule. By tomorrow, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a ban of gifts and meals from lobbyists and tougher restrictions on travel paid for by interest groups.

The Senate will likely take up their own version in a week or two. While the Democrats were the ones to capitalize on a call for ethics reform, one Republican congressman argues that these new rules simply don't go far enough. We're speaking now at the Capitol with Delaware's representative, Michael Castle. Thank you very much for being with us, Mr. Castle.

Representative MICHAEL CASTLE (Republican, Delaware): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What's missing in this current proposal, in your judgment?

Rep. CASTLE: Well, it - I think what's missing that's most significant is that the Ethics Committee will still be run by members of Congress. I think it's very hard to sit in judgment of your own friends and kind, if you will.

For example, the Ethics Committee had a heck of a problem getting started two years ago, in the year 2005. That may have led to some of the problems in 2006. It just wasn't there as an enforcement mechanism.

So my view is that we should have an outside commission. It could be made up of former members of Congress who have no lobbying interest before Congress and/or retired judges - so people who've done this kind of thing before - to do the basic deciding of the cases, that the meting out of the punishment still must be up to Congress because of the Constitution, etcetera. But I think that would be tremendously helpful in terms of dealing with some of these problems.

I also believe that lobbyists should be brought more into what we are doing. They should be trained through the ethics packages. They should know exactly what these rules are, too, as should members of the staff of the various individuals serving in Congress, as should the members of Congress - which is happening.

And I think this is an improved package. I don't mean to be critical of it, I just would like to see it perhaps go further than it already does.

SIMON: I have to ask the practical question, Mr. Castle. Has your phone here in the Capitol been ringing off the hook with members who want to be co-sponsors?

Rep. CASTLE: No. We have one member who wants to be a co-sponsor so far. But on the other hand, we haven't been…

SIMON: You need a couple more, don't you?

Rep. CASTLE: We do need more. We haven't been exactly advertising it, either. I introduced a similar package last year, and we're just trying to tighten it up and introduce it again this year. And since I'm now in the minority party, the Republican Party, I assume it'll be mostly a talking point more than it will be actual legislation to be acted on.

And I believe that the Democrats, in good faith, to their credit, are going to review this concept of an outside commission and probably vote on it sometime in March. But I worry that that kind of study will lead to not doing it, and I just think that this is the moment to actually achieve it, and so we should do it, and the rules are going to pass in the next few days.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. When you talk about, let's say, retired judges sitting in judgment of the ethics of representatives in Congress, the argument has often been cited over the years that the representatives and senators are, after all, the people's representatives. And there's a certain minimal amount of integrity with which they have to be entrusted if democracy is going to work. And if you have people looking over their shoulders, they have other motives, and perhaps they would have other agendas.

Rep. CASTLE: Well, you know, I don't know. My problem with this is that the cases we are talking about that I can think back on in the last year or so are criminal cases. These aren't matters of conduct of members of Congress. These are individuals who, whether they've been in Congress or running a corporation or whatever, would have been, you know, brought before some sort of a judicial-type panel and would've been found guilty and had some sort of punishment meted out.

I think when you get into those circumstances, it goes a little bit beyond the norm. And I think at that point, we need to put into place something which will deter that kind of activity from happening. That's why I think you need to bring the lobbyists into the educational system, the staff members, the members of Congress.

You need to set up the educational system, and I think if you had an outside group which was doing it, they'd be less likely to back off in certain circumstances. I just think there's some cases which were delayed simply because members of Congress who were influential or powerful or whatever it may be - and my view is that we're better off moving to the outside. I realize that there may be disagreement on this, but my sense is that would be the best solution to moving to a - you need a more ethical Congress than we presently have.

SIMON: Now the proposal that the Democrats have offered would, among many other features, as I understand it - let me see if we can get the exact wording. It would ban meals from lobbyists.

Rep. CASTLE: Yeah. I think it's an excellent proposal. I have no problem with the proposal as stated.

SIMON: But let me put it this way. Somebody's elected to Congress. Shouldn't it be assumed that they can't be bought for a club sandwich?

Rep. CASTLE: Yeah, it should be assumed. And it's nice that we all have that belief, but I'm not sure I totally believe it. It's not a club sandwich, it's a club sandwich a week, perhaps, that concerns me - or perhaps the fancy steak at some place or another.

I just - we had a zero-gift ban for a while, a very short time in there, and I just thought it was easier. Just tell everybody: can't do it, can't accept it. You know, and you just go about paying for it yourself or whatever. It just seemed to be easier.

So my view is it's a matter of simplification, to a degree, and not worrying about, you know, was it above a certain amount of money or whatever it may be. But I think, particularly when you're dealing with lobbyists, it's probably best to have as close to a zero-gift ban as you can in terms of meals, gifts, or any game tickets or whatever it may be.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Castle, I want to thank you very much for being with us on this day when you've been sworn in.

Rep. CASTLE: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Michael Castle is the Republican representative from Delaware, joining us here at The Capitol. On our Web site, you can read about some of the issues facing the new leaders on Capitol Hill. Will the House speaker be able to keep Democrats united? Will Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid break with his fellow Democrats when it comes to Iraq? You can come to our Web site and read about all of that at npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We're here on Capitol Hill, and I must say a number of representatives in Congress have been sworn in. We had a few guests scheduled. They have, of course, have all filed into our room all at the same time with their families, so we haven't had a chance to make proper introductions. It's nice to meet everybody, particularly the two young women over there. Thank you very much for being with us. This is a big day for your family. Thanks very much.

We're joined by Congressman Lincoln Davis, a Democrat from Tennessee. Just put those headsets on. Thank you. Nice to meet you, Mr. Davis.

Representative LINCOLN DAVIS (Democrat, Tennessee): It's good to meet you, certainly good to be here. Those two young ladies you're talking about are my two granddaughters.

SIMON: Well, this is a wonderful day. What are their names? I bet you wouldn't mind mentioning that.

Rep. DAVIS: Alexa(ph) and Ashton(ph). They are first cousins, and I told them - as we've said on the House floor - they were watching history being made that would never be made again. And my oldest granddaughter said do you mean another woman won't be elected? I said not for the first time in the history of our country.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. DAVIS: Certainly there will be other women elected as figures, you know.

SIMON: Many, many, many to come.

Rep. DAVIS: I think she was challenging me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yes. Perhaps that's what granddaughters and grandsons are for, isn't it?

Rep. DAVIS: Yes.

SIMON: Please tell us, Mr. Davis, you are a man of professed religious faith, and we've been talking about this.

Rep. DAVIS: My life has always been guided by the scriptures found in the Old and New Testament. The decisions I make in my life are always faith-based decisions. Sometimes, I don't want faith to get credit for those, because I do make mistakes, as anyone else.

I tell folks I watched my parents wear our a Bible, literally wear a Bible out, when I was young, growing up - wore the back off. The pages were worn. My father bought my mother a new Bible in 1955. And when I opened it up after she loaned it to me on Sunday, it had listed - been over Proverbs 10 through 24, which kind of gives us instructions of what we should and shouldn't do, the shame that we do and the great things that we were required to be doing.

So, in essence, it has been a part of my life from the time I watched, just 3 or 4 or 5 years of age, my mother and father literally searched the scriptures for guidance in their life. And it's been a part of mine.

SIMON: But people disagree about biblical interpretation in scripture. It's possible, isn't it, as Abraham Lincoln said, that two people who invoke the same God come up with fundamentally different ideas about what to do in a secular, political situation?

Rep. DAVIS: I think when you only use part of what's in the scriptures to justify your actions, then, in fact, you probably will always wind up on the short end - or, quite frankly, probably wind up being wrong.

But if you include all of it, from the front to the back, and look at the guidance that is there for us, I think you will be a better man or a better woman, and you will be a better servant to man, as well as to God.

SIMON: I have to ask you, Mr. Davis. I want you to restate this, because I don't want to get the reports wrong. Did you say on the floor of the House that people who have committed adultery or who are divorced should not be allowed to serve in this chamber?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, actually, what you're doing is taking it out of context. I went down on the floor and was chiding somewhat because of the third or fourth vote that we had had on the ban on same-sex marriage, saying if you really, really, really want to call this the Family Marriage Protection Act, then there are a lot of things you should be doing, and these are the things you should be doing. But in fact, that really is not what this is all about. It's all about pandering to your base.

And there was an editorial written, it said that in a four-minute speech on the floor, I had probably done more with satire to expose the right wing, their intentions of legislation in the U.S. House, than probably any other speech that had been made on the floor.

SIMON: We have another congressman. Are you Congressman Ryan?

Representative TIM RYAN (Democrat, Ohio): I am.

SIMON: Good to meet you. I'm Scott Simon. Nice to talk to you. Congressman Ryan is a Democrat from Ohio and a member of the Congressional Pro-life Caucus. Thank you very much for being with us.

Rep. RYAN: Good to be with you.

SIMON: Both of you gentlemen, I understand, are part of proposed legislation that would try and make some common cause between people who are opposed to abortion and people who are in favor of abortion rights to at least reduce the number of pregnancies.

Rep. RYAN: That's correct.

SIMON: Well, explain some of that thinking to us.

Rep. RYAN: Well, we - I think Lincoln and I both can agree, and I think hopefully every member of Congress can agree, that you know, 1.3 million abortions in the United States of America is too many. And we need to move forward with proposals - whether they're the one that I moved for with Rosa DeLauro or Mr. Davis' bill - that we need something out there that's going to have a, you know, have a dramatic impact on the levels of abortion in the United States.

And I think it's important for Democrats to say - because we've been pinned a corner for so many years in the minority not able to offer legislation - to say that we are not - we do not celebrate abortion, and to the extent we can reduce the numbers, we want to do that.

Rep. DAVIS: And it's actually a Ryan-Davis bill, so it's not - we both are sponsoring the legislation I've signed on to, so it's really not mine. It's actually ours, and several folks have joined us in that legislation.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. And you think that this can make some kind of common cause between people who have been on opposite sides?

Rep. DAVIS: I think what has happened over the last several years since 1973 -let me give you some facts. Since 1973 - and you look at that Court at that time. It had six Republican appointees and three Democrats on it, of which five Republicans was joined by two Republicans in the majority opinion, and Justice White and Rehnquist - one Republican, on Democrat, Kennedy-Nixon appointee -were on the - was in the minority.

When you look at the court members that have been appointed by Republicans, you find over two-thirds of those in the Court today are actually Republican appointees. They've used too much politics in this issue. We want to do something to solve it.

SIMON: Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio and Congressman Lincoln Davis - both Democrats, from Tennessee - of course, in your case, Mr. Davis. TALK OF THE NATION, we're broadcasting live from Capitol Hill today. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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