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How to stop covering up the ethics violations in Congress

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 14, 2002

You probably don't know Lester Searer. He is a small businessman who lives modestly in York, Pennsylvania. But in a sense you are in debt to him. He is the prototype of citizen activist I always cite when I discuss politicians. You see, Lester holds their feet to the fire. The other day Lester startled me by mentioning that Republicans and Democrats have an unwritten agreement to cover for each other when it comes to ethics charges. Later he sent me documentation of his claim.

You will recall that Minority Whip David Bonior (D-MI) made dozens of serious charges against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. He demanded that the Ethics Committee investigate Gingrich. His charges were front-page news for weeks and were the top story even on television newscasts. I was no fan of the way that Gingrich ran the Speaker's office. But these charges, by any objective standard, were outrageous. Indeed, the Ethics Committee found that only one had any real merit. Gingrich, although almost completely vindicated, never recovered from these false accusations. Indeed, they were part of his undoing, which came at the hands of his fellow Republicans.

The move against Gingrich was payback for Gingrich having forced Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX) to resign over ethics charges. The difference was that Gingrich's charges were mostly with merit whereas Bonior's charges were without merit. So Republicans, fearing that more false charges would destroy their leadership, and Democrats, fearing that more dirt would be dug up on their Members, got together and agreed that there would be no charges unless they just couldn't be swept under the rug.

Robert Torricelli
Torricelli

In the Senate, there has always been that sort of understanding. The only reason the charges against Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) couldn't be ignored was because they were so high-profile, Senators could not ignore them. Even so, the Senate Ethics Committee only slapped Torricelli on the wrist. But against the background of the charges having been aired as the Justice Department also considered them, the Senate action was enough to throw Torricelli's campaign off balance. Under these circumstances it is just too much to expect that Members of Congress will fairly consider charges against each other.

What is needed is this: Congress should do away with the current Ethics Committees in both houses of Congress. Instead, Congress should appoint a joint bi-partisan Committee comprised of men and women of uncompromising integrity. David Schippers, the Democrat who Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee brought in to handle President Bill Clinton's impeachment, comes to mind. The Joint Committee could hire its own staff.

Then the independent staffers could vet accusations and charges made by Members of Congress and those made by outside groups ranging from Common Cause to Judicial Watch, as well as citizens such as Lester Searer.

In this age, when so many businessmen seem to be on the take, and some clergy can't be trusted with kids, and union bosses stiff their membership to line their own pockets, it may be hard to find people of uncompromising integrity. But they are out there. Searer is a good example of one such person. He is nobody's guy, and he can't be bought no matter what.

Members of Congress will never really do their duty in investigating charges against their own. Creating this new committee would solve that problem and perhaps in the process weed out the worst of the rascals. Are there any takers?

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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