Politicians play politics, even in the ethics process


“Now is not the time to play politics simply because an election is looming in a few weeks,” Sen. Susan Collins said as she cast a vote to filibuster the defense authorization bill that contained a repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a measure that she supported.

I saw this line last week as I watched the usually somnolent and despairing Inside Washington hosted by Gordon Peterson on PBS. Peterson immediately echoed my own thoughts upon hearing Collins’ predictable pronouncement. And I paraphrase, “Right before an election seems like the best time to play politics to me.”

This is sort of the no s— statement of past thirty years, where all pundits and politicians bemoan politics as they practice it. It’s also an acknowledgment that Sen. Collins’ statement itself is a political play. All politics is political and all politicians practice politics. Everyone should know this by now and stop complaining about politicians being political.

That being said, I come to the Republicans on the House Ethics Committee playing politics right before an election. Committee Republicans are demanding that Chair Zoe Lofgren hold ethics trials for embattled congressmen Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters. This public call is a serious break in committee decorum and represents an attempt to politicize the ethics trials even more than they already have been.

The Democrats, of course, postponed the trials for political reasons too. Do you think that the Democrats want to go into the toughest election they’ve faced in sixteen years with two prominent members facing trials and verdicts? Hell no! So they postpone the trials, which makes the Republicans try to make some noise off of it.

Politicians playing politics. Get used to it.

Now I’m not going to condemn the political maneuvering here, but I will point out the obvious. A congressional ethics process that relies on self-regulation will ultimately reach undesirable conclusions that increase cynicism in the public and reduce trust in our elected officials. The process will also, invariably, become mucked up by politics as these are politicians judging other politicians, sometimes of the opposing party.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body that members of both parties are unhappy with, is already working to increase the accountability of the ethics process. Instead of bemoaning accountability and a stable ethics process, lawmakers should embrace it by maintaining and expanding the Office of Congressional Ethics.

My colleague Lisa Rosenberg wrote about the need to double the office’s budget next year, “As Congress struggles to redeem its reputation in the eyes of the public, it should be loathe to return to the days when representatives were solely responsible for policing their own. Both parties should demonstrate their commitment to transparency and accountability by giving the OCE the power and the budget to continue the good work it has begun.”

Seeing how the ethics process can be so quickly fouled by politics, it’s time for both parties to help increase the independence of ethics oversight.