Saturday, November 19, 2005

Trivializing Ethics In The U.S. House Of Representatives

A day after he publicly and at times tearfully stated that he believed it was time to start the process of bringing troops home and only hours after being called a "coward" by a barely-elected freshman Republican congresswoman from Ohio in her comments on the floor of the House, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha--ex-Marine, decorated Vietnam Veteran, long-time supporter of the Pentagon's military objectives, and conservative Democrat--has become a target of the Republican members of the House Ethics Committee, who are testing the idea of investigating Murtha.

Murtha may or may not be guilty of ethics violations, but the timing of the announcement of consideration of an investigation stinks. It does not stink because I believe that Murtha has not done anything worthy of investigation; I do not know enough about the details of his dealings yet to judge either way. It stinks because the timing of the investigation is clearly a show of naked power and bald-faced retribution by Republican leaders miffed that one of their supporters has left the fold. It stinks because it shows that ethics for political enemies is a buzz saw, that ethics for political friends is a feather duster.

Serious advocates of ethics reform should be wary of ethics investigations that are used to punish former Bush administration supporters who have a change of heart on the Iraq War. When ethics becomes a Taser against wayward partisans, it is trivialized and shrunk in the minds of its supposed practicioners and in the public mind.

Using ethics as a political weapon--the extension of campaign tactics by other means--reduces it to moral insignificance. It confirms the public perception that those who are supposed to govern actually operate according to rules that have very little to do with assuring appropriate behavior. It undermines discipline and corrupts duty. Ethics becomes the moral equivalent of political cronyism that only extends as far as one's last submissive act, which gets confused with true loyalty. And the results are morally disastrous: marshalling an ethics investigation as one might mount a political campaign requires nothing but the total surrender of honesty and integrity.

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