At some point during their careers, every elected official must decide whether their principles will shape their politics, or their politics will shape their principles. Unfortunately, in modern America there seems to be a shortage of politicians who are willing to stand on principle, regardless of the political fallout. But voters notice when elected officials let politics shape their principles, and they often vote accordingly. For proof that putting politics over principle can be dangerous, just ask the recently defeated Republican Party.
In my post-election commentary, I noted that Christian conservatives contributed to the Republican defeat last November. Confronted with rampant GOP corruption, few prominent Christian leaders clearly and forcefully denounced Republican misdeeds. Now that Democrats have won a congressional majority, it will be interesting to see whether there will be as much hesitance to speak out.
Corruption should be a nonpartisan issue. When individual representatives or senators are receiving bribes from lobbyists, or when they are being paid to use their power for private gain, it is not just bad for their political party, it is bad for the whole nation. Their misdeeds taint the entire Congress and make it more difficult for our representatives to do their jobs. Personal misconduct typically says little about one’s party; a senator does not take a bribe because she is a Republican, a congressman does not accept illegal gifts because he is a Democrat. Generally it is personal greed and selfishness that drives corrupt politicians, not politics.
Personal weakness becomes a political issue when the governing party turns a blind eye to corruption. There will probably never be a time when every member of congress is perfectly upright. Combine power with a fallen human nature and there will always be problems, on both sides of the aisle. Yet if both political parities stood on principle and took all signs of corruption seriously, corruption would not be a political issue. It would be seen more as a personal shortcoming. However, sometimes Republicans and Democrats try to protect ethically challenged members of their party for political reasons. Before long, this desire to cover up immoral behavior leads to a “culture of corruption”, which can, as we have seen, become extremely partisan.
Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has made a commendable promise. She said the next Congress will be “the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history.” Politicians who are committed to high ethical standards, regardless of their political affiliation, should strive to make her promise a reality.
For those of us who are not elected, we can help by consistently discussing congressional ethics from a non-partisan perspective. It is painful when our favorite politicians are called into question, but if a law has been broken or rules put asunder we cannot allow our personal affection to stand in the way of justice. Whether an individual is a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or liberal, we should all stand together to denounce every sign of corruption.
Speaker-elect Pelosi will reveal the degree to which she is committed to an ethical Congress by the way she responds to the reelection of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). Last weekend Rep. Jefferson's Louisiana constituents voted to send him back to Washington for a ninth term. This, despite the fact that a major cloud of suspicion hangs over his head. Two of the congressman’s former associates have already pled guilty to bribing him, and both have been sentenced to significant jail time. In 2005, Rep. Jefferson was videotaped accepting $100,000 from FBI informant Lori Mody. At the time he told Ms. Mody that he would need at least $500,000, which he planned to give to Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar to ensure that Mody’s company would win contracts in Nigeria. $90,000 of that money was later discovered in a freezer in Rep. Jefferson's home.
Rep. Jefferson is, of course, presumed innocent until proven guilty. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that Rep. Jefferson has, at the very least, abused his power. It is expected that he will soon be indicted. Despite all of this, Speaker-elect Pelosi has sent mixed messages about the role Rep. Jefferson will play in the next Congress, as it now appears that he will be offered a seat on the Small Business Committee. It is not enough for Pelosi to strip Jefferson of his former seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, while granting him a seat on a “less important” committee. Given the seriousness of the allegations, and the evidence against him that has already been made public, Rep. Jefferson should be prevented from serving on any committees until the investigation into his actions has concluded. Committee involvement, where only a few members of Congress decide weighty issues that often go unchanged by the full Congress, is ripe with temptation for bribes and improper influence. Pelosi had plenty of strong words to say about Republican corruption before the November elections. She should put such words into action now that it is a Democrat who is under suspicion.
At the same time, the Republican Party could show strong leadership by outdoing the Democrats in their zeal to clean up the mess on their side of the aisle. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if both parties competed to see who could clean up the corruption in their own ranks the quickest, rather than excusing their own corruption by pointing out the errors of their opponents? Depending on the enthusiasm with which they clean their own houses, the Republicans and Democrats will reveal who condemns corruption on principle, and who condemns it for political gain.