Policy Today magazine cover politician in black and white
August 9, 2006

Congress has a lot of good apples, so why don't they toss out the bad ones?

Silence. The proverb says it's golden, but just as often it can preserve the blight that undermines the system. We're first exposed to the disgrace of "tattling" on the playground, where snitches face ridicule and social exile at the lunch table. In the Sicilian mafia, the code of silence is called "Omertà," and those who break it gamble with their lives.

Is it any surprise that our United States Congress would be subject to the same institutional dynamic? It shouldn't be. Former Speaker Sam Rayburn once advised his junior House colleagues to "go along to get along," and that paradigm continues to dominate the debate on Capitol Hill.

The Framers took the existence of public virtue in national leaders for granted.  They never explained how selfish individuals became more virtuous than "men of indigence, ignorance, and baseness" as they ascended the political ladder.  While frequently referring to an individual's inherent selfishness, they provided no proof of why anyone should act more altruistically when elected to public office.

"Certainly, this is the most poisonous climate I have ever experienced in my five decades as a Congressman" says John Dingell (D-MI) "But the poisonous partisan-ship isn't an excuse for misbehavior or criminal acts." The criminal actors in the past have been relatively isolated, a few bad apples here and there. But even today, when a cloud of suspicion hovers over dozens of politicians, the vast majority of our legislators are still honest, hardworking individuals. So, why do they tolerate the bad seeds?

More than anything, the institutional culture that keeps corruption under wraps is self governing, making it almost impossible to expose the culprits.

"Nothing is going on in Congress when it comes to policing the corruption," says Naomi Seligman-Steiner of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. "When you get into the system you get an enormous amount of power. It doesn't matter if you take longer trips, or accept money; there is an inadequate ethics office in Congress. That needs to change. There are a lot of laws, but no cops and that is very detrimental to running a clean Congress."

One thing is for sure, few lawmakers like to face the fact that Congress has a problem with ethics. But ethics and Congressional corruption matter to most American voters. In a recent Gallup poll, 49% of those surveyed thought most members of Congress to be corrupt. More important, 55% claimed corruption is "the most important" issue to be considered when all 435 House seats are up for grabs in November.

"There has been an ethics truce for close to 10 years," claims Seligman-Steiner. "New members are told not to file complaints against anyone. Even when there are egregious revelations, not a thing can happen."

"Honestly, I don't know much about Congressional corruption. But I do know things have changed," opines Phil Power, head of The Center for Michigan think tank. "In the mid 60's I was an administrative aide to a congressman. I found that the members and staff with whom I worked were capable, willing, interested people who had their share of ambition but also intended to serve the public. We would get together with other members from both parties and get something done. But today the atmosphere has changed because of the partisan divide. Members don't know each other well and do not work together. There is little incentive to do that."

The new paradigm—two camps deeply entrenched opposite one another—may be a big reason why good representatives can't easily blow the whistle on bad ones. It's not that they're unwilling to do so, but because the enforced partisan isolation makes them unable. "I have seen a lot transpire over the years," explains Dingle. "And this is the most difficult it's ever been to work together."

In a handful of districts, challengers like Angie Paccionne are running on a "Clean up Congress" platform. Paccionne, a Colorado state representative, is challenging incumbent Marilyn Musgrave for the state's fourth congressional district. Her campaign literature and speeches ring a familiar tone for those on the outside looking in.

"Angie is not going to stand for corruption in Congress," says James Thompson, Paccione's campaign manager. "Musgrave was named one of the 13 most corrupt members of Congress. She has taken money from Delay, Ney and various other PACs. We're out here in the West and there is a western code. Honesty is the base of that. When Angie gets to Washington she will help in cleaning up Congress."

Unfortunately, these types of campaign promises almost invariably ring hollow when candidate becomes incumbent. Aside from the decade-old unwritten complaint filing truce, there is an atmosphere that leaves some members blinded. Unfortunately, much of that atmosphere grows out of the partisanship in the House. When one congressional staffer—who asked not to be identified—was asked what she thought of the corruption she immediately responded, "It's just because 'they' are in control now."

"Partisanship definitely has an effect on corruption," adds Power. "Add that to the fact that each party has developed districts with ideological extremes, the Democrats lean to the left, the Republicans to the right, and various bills are loaded with earmarks that add to potential corruption and you have very different atmosphere."

How far down the chain does bad behavior go? "I had no idea that any of this was happening, nor did any other staff member" says Melanie Russo, press secretary for Congressman William Jefferson, (D-LA). Currently, Jefferson is facing allegations that he accepted bribes for influence and is under investigation by the Justice Department. Jefferson was videotaped passing a $100,000 bribe to an FBI informant. "I don't think that any member of a Congressman's staff would know that much."

The task would seem to fall to the ten members of the House Ethics Committee, but recent events suggest that they've been away from their phones. The Democrats have railed against the "Culture of Corruption" fostered by the Republican majority, but from whence is this "culture" born?

According to Dr. Saul Faerstein, the psychiatrist who treated convicted Congressman Duke Cunningham (R-CA), lots of things happen to people when they decide to run for office, but for the most part anything predisposing a member to bad behavior has happened well before they start giving stump speeches.

"I believe there is something there before the process starts," says Faerstein. "Congress has the same make up as society has and there are some very distasteful people who decide to run; there are sociopaths, and liars and cheats. But, there are also some very evil forces there. Whenever you have a position of power—whether a CEO or a politician or the owner of a large company—the evil forces pull at you to bring you to the dark side. The forces find out your weak points and work on them. Congressmen are the same as everyone else. Only the temptations may be greater."

Michael Arcuri, the Democratic congressional candidate for New York's 24th district, has a slightly different philosophy. As the county district attorney, Arcuri feels that Congressmen get too comfortable.

"My experience with public officials is that you can't get too comfortable," says Arcuri. "Many politicians have a sense of entitlement as an elected official. Once elected, I feel you are supposed to get fewer benefits, not more. The sense of entitlement has to be left behind. You can never forget you represent the people, not yourself."

"One of the major problems facing Congress today is the fact that they govern themselves" added Seligman-Steiner. The House doesn't allow complaints from outsiders. Therefore, unless another member of the congressional club files the complaint, it will never be heard. The Senate, on the other hand, allows outside complaints.

"If we want to file a complaint, as we did with DeLay, Bob Ney, and Duke Cunningham we had to go to the Justice Department and the press. We look to the press to be the watchdog now. What the House needs is an independent ethics office to police itself. If you have a lot of laws it only makes sense to have some policing," says Seligman-Steiner.

However, Congressman Jim Ramstad, (R-MN) who has diligently worked for stricter ethical standards sees new legislation as the answer. "Sweeping, bipartisan reforms are needed to restore the integrity of Congress and the trust of the American people" says Ramstad. "That's why I support bipartisan legislation to ban privately funded congressional travel and all gifts from lobbyists, as well as lobbying and unfair access by former members. We also need to eliminate special interest projects that do not receive individual scrutiny and approval by Congress."

If history is any kind of guide though, Ramstad's list of ethics reform goals will be difficult to reach. While there is probably no "silent conspiracy" leading virtuous legislators to look away when their colleagues bribe, cheat and lie, the inability to stop corruption before it starts is nonetheless troubling. Ultimately, policing the Congress will require a return to collegiality and collaboration with emphasis on shared goals. In today's venomous political atmosphere, however, "good" representatives seem curiously silent in the face of unethical behavior that they would never condone in themselves.

About John Foley

John Foley is a freelance journalist, writer and editor from San Francisco, California.