Ethics Isn't A Partisan Issue

Charlie Rangel (D-NY), guilty as charged
Charlie Rangel (D-NY), guilty as charged

At least, not to me. After the long-ish post regarding Tom Delay below, I realized that it’s been some time since he was in the forefront of (or in fact anywhere near) the national political conversation, while someone who is very much still a part of it undergoes his own ethics trial right now, unfolding as we speak. Of course, I’m talking about Charlie Rangel, the 21-term(!) congressman from New York (Harlem), who’s been in the crosshairs of an ethics investigation for nearly two years now. I don’t bring Rangel’s ethics violations up to draw a false dichotomy of “everybody does it equally.” They don’t. Tom Delay’s violations, while farther back in time and thus less immediately interesting, were almost certainly of a more serious degree than anything Rangel was just convicted of, primarily because of Delay’s leadership position in the house, but also due to the nature of the accusations against Delay.

Nonetheless, the happenstance of having a relatively high-profile, long-time Democratic congressman going down on ethics charges at the same time as things seem to be moving more rapidly in the Delay case underscores that obviously, ethics violations are not strictly the province of any one party, group or person. Even more to the point, the juxtaposition underscores that ethics is not (in reality) and should not be thought of nor dealt with as a partisan issue. Good government, transparent government, is something we all should want, whether it’s you and I out here in relatively-backwater blogistan, or the people who actually do hold and wield real power in the halls of congress. It’s clearly time for Charlie Rangel to go, just as it was clear to me years ago – well before his actual indictment – that it was time for Tom Delay to go as well…for very similar reasons. Let’s hope that in the future, we can set aside the urge to circle the wagons and make excuses when it’s one of our own (which, to their credit, the Democratic-run house ethics committee seems not to be doing with Rangel), or go into simple “attack mode” when it’s one of the “other team’s” guys caught in the ethical dragnet. Maybe that way, we’ll get more of what everyone – at least in the abstract – claims to want: more honest and ethical government. And, for crying out loud, let’s press congress to put some actual teeth into punishments for conviction on ethics violations?

The committee has finished its public meeting and will go behind closed doors. Staff counsel has recommended Rangel be censured for breaking ethics rules.

Censure? Please.

(updated to add):

The other thing I forgot to mention here is that while Tom Delay’s violations quite likely had more of an impact and were “worse,” comparatively, one of the jaw-dropping things about the Rangel case is that, in the midst of all this, while things were coming to a head, Rangel was reelected this month in what was (both before and after the election) widely considered a Republican “wave” year by 80% of his constituents in his Harlem district. That’s disgusting, but far from unique, and it’s possibly the most-important piece of information to mull in this whole ethics issue. If you polled a random sample of voters with only one question: are you in favor of ethical behavior in the nation’s elected leaders, the results would likely be in the 90%+ range.

Put that abstractly, almost no one will admit to being in favor of UNethical behavior. And yet popular politicians, again and again, are re-elected by their constituents even after their convictions on serious ethics violations. I don’t know if I think that’s just a product of the electorate’s cynicism (“they all do it, so what’s the difference”) or hometown favoritism (“he may be a scumbag, but he’s our scumbag, by golly!”), or possibly even a lack of awareness on the part of many voters. But whatever the reason or reasons, I’d suggest that if we – that 90%+ of us who would answer abstractly that sure, we’d like to see ethical politicians – don’t stop rewarding unethical behavior by returning the violators/criminals to office as if nothing had happened, then we might as well be dropping pennies in a fountain and merely wishing for ethical politicians, for all the good it’s going to do us. Only when each of us can look to our OWN hometown favorites dispassionately enough to recognize that if we don’t like bad behavior in other people’s politicians, we have to have the guts and the wisdom to give our own the boot if they get convicted of the same, will we be able to begin to stop the rot. Only then might it sink in to the average congresscritter’s head that if (s)he screws around with the public trust (s)he’s been given, it’s curtains for him/her. Without that as a starting point, there’s simply no real pressure on our elected officials to behave ethically.

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