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Inside the Beltway Ethics: Two Sets of Rules Print E-mail
By George Marlin   
Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Throughout the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama pledged that his administration would give birth to a “new era of responsibility.” Lobbyists and the ethically-challenged would be banned from working in the executive branch. He would initiate “the most sweeping ethics reforms in history.”

Despite Obama’s lofty rhetoric, to date over a dozen lobbyists have received job waivers and tax-law violations of nominees have been overlooked. Columnist Michael Goodwin observed that Obama is “making Swiss cheese out of his executive order barring lobbyists from his administration.” He concluded, “Instead of enforcing the ban he’s busy poking holes in it.”

Why are Democrats absolved for their ethical transgressions and Republicans punished? Because there are two sets of rules.

To prove my contention, let’s review a few high-profile cases starting with Republicans:

• In 1985, Idaho Congressman George Hansen was indicted, convicted and served time in prison for failing to disclose to the House of Representatives loans made to him by Nelson Bunker Hunt.
• President Reagan’s first national security adviser, Richard Allen, was hounded out of office by the media over three inexpensive watches he received from longtime friend Professor Tamotsu Takase.
• In January 1989, former U.S. Senator John Tower was the first cabinet nominee of a new president to be turned down by the Senate. Tower, a divorced man, was rejected as Secretary of Defense by his former colleagues because of rumors he was a womanizer.
• Senator Robert Packwood of Oregon resigned his seat in September 1995 after the Senate Ethics Committee recommended expulsion for sexual harassment.

Now the Democrats:

• Congressman Geraldine Ferraro (the 1984 Democrat V.P. candidate) received a pass for failing to reveal on Congressional disclosure forms that she owned stock in her husband’s real estate corporation. It was considered a “mere oversight.”
• Congressman and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, who failed to pay taxes on income from his Caribbean rental properties and whose disclosure forms have had a minimum of twenty-eight omissions in thirty years, was instantly forgiven by the members of his party for “minor mistakes.”
• Charges of sexual harassment against President Clinton and the Lewinsky affair were dismissed by his party’s leaders as politically motivated and an invasion of his private life.
• Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, got an ethics pass for receiving preferential mortgage rate treatment from the scandal-ridden and now defunct Countrywide Financial.
• Although Tim Geithner admitted he owed more than $48,000 in back taxes, his nomination as Treasury secretary and overseer of the IRS was never in doubt because his supporters believed it was an “honest error.”
• Despite revelations that former Senator Tom Daschle owed more than $120,000 in back taxes, and made millions at a Washington law and lobbying firm – even though he is neither a lawyer nor a registered lobbyist – his nomination for secretary of Health and Human Services was not in serious trouble. Senate Democrats concluded his public apology was sufficient penance and President Obama said he “absolutely stood” behind his nominee. After Daschle’s withdrawal, the White House announced the president did not force him to do so and accepted his decision with “sadness and regret.”

Notice the double standards?

It all comes down to one's definition of “ethics.” For me, ethics means something like the classical conception: “defining the ends of human life and action as well as the virtues required for becoming a fulfilled, perfect person.” And the natural law is the moral underpinning in reaching that end. It establishes the norms of morality without which we would be unable to distinguish right from wrong.

For others (mostly liberals), ethics is devoid of moral absolutes. They adopt a utilitarian, amoral system based on the so-called “pleasure principle” which holds that the good society is the one providing the greatest happiness to the greatest number.

With no appeal to absolute values there are no “oughts” and as a consequence the dominant group in power has no limitations. Those with power implement whatever has political, social, or economic utility. This leads to a situation ethics – the ends justifying the means. The common good is “whatever works,” as President Obama has frequently said.

This ethical approach permits a philosophy of expediency. Self-proclaimed "enlightened" Democrats who enter public life are exempt from some rules of conduct because they are the chosen ones – the elite who are called to transform America into a Utopian paradise. Because they are noble, they do not break laws or commit offenses – they only make occasional mistakes.

Republicans, on the other hand, are condemned for their transgressions – whether genuine or perceived – because they are ignoble. They enter public life for self-serving reasons and are driven by avarice and greed.

Like it or not, that’s the prevailing wisdom in Washington. And we are going to have to live with it for at least four long years.

George Marlin is the author of The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

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Comments (8)Add Comment
0
Sign of the Times
written by William Dennis, February 11, 2009
"Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains."
-Jean Rousseau
This Enlightenment philosopher believed that man has no natural rights, but must submit to the will of the majority for his own protection. The will of the majoirity trumps the concept of moral virtue. Does this sound more and more familiar? After this came the "Reign of Terror."
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written by Megs, February 11, 2009
Ok...and this has what to do with the Catholic Church? I thought this blog was supposed to be about God but we seem to have misplaced the "d" and added a "p."
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written by Karen Iacovelli, February 11, 2009
David Brooks' column, Ward Three Mentality, published in the 2/3 NYT opined another dimension to the (lack) of ethics and Obaminations now committed in the name of a stimulus bill. The double standard is deeply rooted in envy by the new "management class" now in power. Brooks states: What you must realize, above all, is the rich no longer control the economy and its mores.Ward Three people do, and their rule has just begun.
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Matter of Trust
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., February 12, 2009
Dear Megs, as off-putting as it might be to address politics in this forum, I think it is important, in view of the fact that so many Catholics and Evangelicals drank the Kool-Aid and voted for the Abortion Party, to evaluate the honesty and initegrity of those who promised, as Obama did, to govern by Christian ideas of social justice. I think that considerataion of deceit, hypocrisy, and cynicism in either party is appropriate for Catholics, even if it is downright unpleasant.
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written by Megs, February 12, 2009
Thanks for the kind note Mr. Coleman. I suppose my take on it is I come to this site to learn and reflect on the Church. I loathe both political parties. Neither are in line with the Church's teachings and, if the GOP cared so much about the issue of life, they have had time in office to do something about it. Souter, Kennedy, O'Conner, Harriet....
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Lesser Evils
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., February 12, 2009
Dear Megs, I sympathize with your loathing of both parties. Party loyalty is for Communists and Fascists. But did the GOP really do nothing? The partial-birth abortaion ban, Mexico City Policy, and limits on embryonic stell cell abuse were not all that was needed, but they were not just sops cynically thown to stupid Christians. Now those have been undone, and worse is to follow, along with more family weakening and secularization. We must all pray, very hard!
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written by Joseph T Worker, February 13, 2009
"For others (mostly liberals), ethics is devoid of moral absolutes."

Sadly, sir, your statement is in error. Conservatives have violated "Thou shalt not kill" when convenient; "thou shalt not lie" when convenient; and "thou shalt not steal" when convenient.

Your statement is best recast as: "For others (mostly conservatives), ethics means nothing at all."
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written by Megs, February 13, 2009
I grant you all those points Mr. Coleman but I would also remind you that the Republican Party controlled the House and Senate for most of the last 15 years and the White House for 28 of the last 41 years and the pro-life movement has gotten little.

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