Inside the Beltway Ethics: Two Sets of Rules Print
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.

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