Is 'ethics' just another word for politics?

Posted: Apr 19, 2005 12:00 AM

Perhaps Tom DeLay should have been more circumspect regarding a trip he took to Russia eight years ago and who paid for it. But it should be clear that the Democratic leadership does not have its long knives out for DeLay because of outrage about ethics. This is about politics and power.

If Tom DeLay was an incompetent and ineffective fool, Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi would be doing all they could to keep him around. There would be little interest in splitting hairs whether financing for a certain trip did or did not come through a non-profit organization or whether there is a problem that DeLay has family members on his payroll, a common practice by members of Congress.

What Reid and Pelosi hate is that DeLay is a highly effective conservative partisan and thanks in large part to his work, and sympathy from a large part of the American electorate for the values he represents, Democrats are the minority party today.

Certainly, DeLay will have no choice but answer accusations about alleged improprieties. However, we should not lose perspective about what we are trying to do. If what we want is better government, then arbitrarily designed and arbitrarily implemented congressional "ethics" rules certainly will not lead to this end.

If the federal government influenced a tiny fraction of our lives, then few would care if a contractor or businessman wanted to take a favorite congressman or Senator on a golfing trip. But when the federal government consumes one of every four dollars produced by the U.S. economy and congressman and senators significantly influence our social and economic reality, we care what they do.

We have seen many changes in congressional rules on "ethics" over the last quarter century. A couple of House speakers, among others, have been booted out. Yet, who would say that Washington today is a more virtuous, more ethical place than it was 25 years ago? With trillions of dollars at stake and outcomes dependent on the inclinations of politicians, it is a joke to think that arbitrary rules about how much can be accepted from whom and for what will change the game.

Nothing will change as long as we continue to turn a large chunk of our lives over to the whim of politicians of any party.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article this past week about some of the newest companies on the American business scene, all representative of cutting edge American entrepreneurship, that have been forced to open offices in Washington. These are companies like Starbucks, Google,, Red Hat, Inc.

CEOs who have built great companies delivering terrific new products to the American public now, by virtue of their success, have to come to Washington to protect themselves and kiss the rings of their political overseers.

The story relates how Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz was stood up for a meeting by a Senator's 20-year-old staffer. When the meeting finally came off, Shultz said he was there "just to talk." Her reply: "So talk."

This repulsive behavior certainly does not violate any formal Senate ethics rules. However, rude behavior aside, what is the cost to the U.S. economy of the CEO of a multibillion dollar corporation having to spend the day traipsing around Washington, no less getting stood up by a young staffer?

If we seek civil virtue and efficiency, I see only two things we can do.

First, shrink the size of the federal government so we limit the scope of our lives that politicians control.

National defense is one area that clearly belongs under federal control. However, according to the Cato Institute, defense spending as a percentage of GDP has dropped from 9 percent in 1960 to 4 percent in 2004. However, non-defense spending, all the other stuff, has increased over the same period from 7 percent to 15 percent. This spending represents large portions of our lives we've arbitrarily turned over to political control. Let's cut it and privatize.

It's hilarious to listen to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi make allegations about "abuse of power" as we watch Democrats filibuster judge confirmation votes and refuse to talk about personal retirement accounts or any reform that would reduce the size and influence of government.

Let's listen to those who want to trash our tax code and have a simple flat tax or national sales tax. CEO's won't have to spend their valuable time in Washington lobbying about taxes and finding legal avenues for buying political favors. Let's have personal retirement accounts and get the federal government out of the retirement business. Let's have school choice and get the federal government of the education business.

My second recommendation is to take a new look at term limits for Senators and Congressmen. It's time.

If we refuse to take steps to reduce the scope of federal government and to limit congressional terms, "ethics" in Washington will continue to be just another word for politics.