Congress has no business lecturing others on ethics

Martin D. Tullai

September 18, 1990|By Martin D. Tullai

SEN. ROBERT BYRD, D-W.Va., wants to make sure our military academies don't produce more Ollie Norths.

He's pushing to provide more ethics lessons at the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy. Joining him are Maryland's two senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, who have notified the superintendent of the Naval Academy of their views.

These senators may be pursuing a worthy end, but it almost defies logic. Several recent polls have demonstrated Americans' lack of faith in Congress' ethical standards. This is like W.C. Fields leading a drive for prohibition.

Whether or not a strong case can be made that more ethics courses are needed at the academies, ethics instruction is clearly needed on Capitol Hill. These three senators could perform a mighty public service if they shifted their focus and submitted a bill mandating that all representatives and senators undergo a rigorous ethical orientation prior to taking office.

Too harsh? Hardly. On the same page of The Evening Sun (July 30) carrying the article outlining the views of the three senators was a revolting story on the sleazy, reprehensible and unethical behavior of two of their colleagues -- Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Sen. Dave Durenberger, R.-Minn. Just as disheartening was the punishment meted out to them -- the equivalent of a slap on the wrist.

But Frank and Durenberger are only the latest members of Congress to be exposed as shabby and unethical.

About a decade ago Tongsun Park, a Korean businessman, was accused of doling out millions of dollars (in cash) to members of Congress in the 1970s to guarantee their support for American aid to South Korea. While only one legislator, Richard Hanna, went to prison, 36 present and former members of Congress received money from the Koreans.

On the heels of this came the Abscam probe, an undercover FBI investigation of corruption among public officials. Eight legislators were accused, seven were indicted and six were convicted of accepting bribes. Rep. Michael Myers of Pennsylvania was expelled. Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey, the lone senator convicted, resigned when faced with expulsion from the Senate.

Another senator, Herman Talmadge, D.-Ga., was found to have mishandled thousands of dollars in Senate expense money and campaign contributions in 1979. In 1983, the House censured Daniel Crane, R-Ill., and Gerry Studds, D-Mass. Both had had sexual relations with congressional pages.

And then there were the resignations of Jim Wright, the House speaker, and Tony L. Coelho, the majority whip, under less-than-favorable conditions. It also appears that several other reputations will be seriously damaged when the final chapter is written in the savings and loan scandal.

Unfortunately, these relatively modern examples are not aberrations. The past reveals a number of dismal examples of legislators who dirtied themselves.

In the Credit Mobilier railroad scandal of the 1860s, congressmen received about $450,000 in bribes in exchange for their cooperation in the granting of government subsidies. It cost about $50 million to build the Union Pacific railroad line, but $94 million was charged. This became known as "the greatest legislative crime in history."

When the Teapot Dome scandal broke in the 1920s, Americans learned that the secretary of interior, Albert B. Fall, had sold out the interests of the nation. In exchange for about $400,000, he gave away naval petroleum reserves to oil companies valued at $200 million. Convicted of bribery, Fall became the first cabinet officer in American history sentenced to a prison term.

What office had Fall held before President Harding appointed him to the cabinet? He was a U.S. senator. (When Henry L. Mencken later described Harding's cabinet as "three highly intelligent men of self-interest, six jackasses and one common crook," it was obvious to whom the last term applied.)

And then there was "Fire Engine Joe" Foraker, senator from Ohio, who was later exposed as having been on the payroll of the Standard Oil Co. while serving in the U.S. Senate.

Daniel Webster, who is generally hailed for his love and defense of the union, also had a dark side. His elasticity of conscience found him so indiscreet in seeking bribes that he eagerly accepted gifts totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sen. Simon Cameron, known as the "czar of Pennsylvania," was a master spoilsman and political manipulator. The remark that "an honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought," is attributed to this senator of pliable ethics. Cameron lined his pockets with even greater zest during the Civil War, when he served a short time as President Lincoln's secretary of war.

This short and incomplete listing offers a sad commentary on the activities of some members of Congress. Oh, if only they knew and heeded the words of Sophocles: "Nobody has a more sacred obligation to obey the law than those who make the law." While the entire group ought not be condemned because of the knavery of some, the record shows Congress has to do a better job keeping its own house clean.

To Congress' credit, new codes of congressional ethics were enacted following the Abscam scandal, and Byrd has every right to criticize. But he should be reminded that when he points a finger, there are fingers pointing back at him.

Martin D. Tullai is chairman of the History Department at St. Paul's School.

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