Watching our elected leaders in action, it’s not surprising that Americans wonder if there is any limit to the crass misbehavior that members of Congress are willing to tolerate from their colleagues to protect their privileges and hold on to their own jobs. The House ethics committee answered that question yesterday with a resounding “No.”
Sixty-four days after it promised to find out who knew about Representative Mark Foley’s wildly inappropriate, sexually predatory behavior with teenage House pages, and why they failed to stop it, the bipartisan committee produced a report yesterday that was a 91-page exercise in cowardice.
The report’s authors were clearly more concerned about protecting the members of the House than the young men and women under their charge in the page program. And they made absolutely no effort to define the high standard of behavior that should be required of all members of Congress and their staffs.
....The report makes clear that Mr. Foley’s misconduct became known to an ever-widening circle of his colleagues and their aides, including Speaker Dennis Hastert. But no one made any serious attempt to stop Mr. Foley or reveal his misdeeds. A few urged him to cut it out, for political reasons, but did not follow up.
The committee concluded that other people preferred to remain willfully ignorant — to protect Mr. Foley’s secret homosexuality, to avoid partisan embarrassment or for other political reasons.But even after all that, the report said that none of this amounted to the sort of behavior that might discredit the House of Representatives and thus violate ethics rules. The committee, which never heard from Mr. Foley, did not call for disciplinary action against current members of the House or their staffs....
The panel’s justification for inaction is a breathtaking exercise in sophistry: “the requirement that House members and staff act at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House does not mean that every error in judgment or failure to exercise greater oversight or diligence” is a violation.
No, not every error or failure should be a violation, but certainly the ones that lead to an elected official’s sexually stalking teenage boys while his colleagues turn a blind eye or cover it up should be. We’d set the bar at least there. Apparently, it’s too high for the House.
Oy. Maybe this should have waited until the Democrats took over. Assuming that that would have helped.
This speaks to a huge structural problem with our supposedly self-policing government: That guilt or innocence is never decided by an impartial jury, but rather by congresspeople with clear-cut political affiliations and loyalties. Imagine a murder trial where the jury is composed solely of the defendant's friends and enemies (and furthermore, that only a simple majority is needed to convict). The testimony and evidence in the case would be irrelevant - all that would matter would be whether the defendant had more friends than enemies on the jury.
That is the situation that we had eight years ago, when Clinton was frivolously impeached, simply because his enemies controlled Congress. That is the situation we have today, when Foley's enablers got off because their friends control the ethics panel. President Bush admitted to breaking the law in his use of wireless wiretapping and uncontestable detentions, yet impeachment was never even a possibility because his party controlled both houses of Congress. Even under the incoming Democratic Congress, impeachment is not a possibility because the new majority party has to worry about how it might affect their chances of re-election. Granted, this could change as investigations bring more presidential wrongdoing to light, but the underlying problem remains: In-house law enforcement for the political class is a political rather than a legal process, making true justice and accountability impossible.
(Yes, granted, certain crimes can trigger criminal court proceedings, but the government appears to have some discretion to keep things in-house - much like, say, the Catholic Church. And as I understand it, a sitting President's immunity to criminal prosecution is absolute.)