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New Debate Underway on Ethics in US Congress


The resignation of a Republican lawmaker who admitted to charges of bribery, tax evasion and other charges has again focused attention on the subject of ethics in U.S. Congress. Over the years, scandals have been a problem for both major political parties in the United States. However, recent developments are prompting new calls for an ethics house-cleaning in Congress:

This week's confession by Republican Congressman Randy Cunningham was, to many experienced Washington political observers, just another chapter in several decades of ethical scandals that have caught Republicans as well as Democrats in acts of misconduct.

Although it occurred while lawmakers were on a two-week recess, when American's attention is usually not sharply focused on Congress, Mr. Cunningham's tearful televised admission of guilt nonetheless produced powerful shockwaves. "For all of this, I am deeply sorry. The truth is I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, most importantly the trust of my friends and family."

In terms of both its short-term and longer-term political impact, Mr. Cunningham's declaration that he engaged in illegal acts couldn't have come at a worse time.

It occurred in the wake of the indictment this past September in Texas of the former powerful Republican leader in the House of Representatives, Congressman Tom DeLay, on conspiracy and felony charges involving money laundering.

Mr. DeLay, speaking to reporters as he was forced to temporarily relinquish his leadership post, struck back at what he called politically-motivated efforts directed against him. "This act is the product of a coordinated, pre-meditated campaign of political retribution, the all too predictable result of a vengeful investigation led by a partisan fanatic," he said.

As Mr. DeLay's legal problems play out, leading to an expected trial early next year, House Republicans operate under temporary leadership.

However, his difficulties and the media attention given to former Congressman Cunningham have added new fuel to the fire of debate over ethics. Both have given opposition Democrats additional ammunition in their campaign against what they call "a Republican culture of corruption."

As Mr. DeLay faced admonishments many months ago from the House of Representatives Ethics Committee, one of his key critics, now former Congressman Chris Bell, described what he called an ethical crisis threatening the credibility of Congress. "This attack on Congress comes in the form of serious criminal acts, including bribery, extortion, fraud, money laundering and the abuse of power. This attack harms all Americans because it damages the credibility of our laws and the legislative process by which we seek national consensus," he said.

This week, Republicans lost no time condemning former Congressman Cunningham's misconduct. President Bush said the idea of a congressman taking money is "outrageous".

But even as the president spoke, new details emerged about the ongoing federal corruption investigation into the activities of a former Republican lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who had links with Congressman DeLay and other lawmakers. Testimony by Mr. Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a former Republican lobbyist and aide to Mr. DeLay, could ensnare others in an accelerating story involving the power of special interests.

Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Martin Meehan was a co-sponsor of legislation proposed earlier this year that would have imposed tougher guidelines on lobbying in Congress. "This is much bigger than a few individuals stepping over the ethical lines. The fact that Jack Abramoff believed that what he was doing was just accepted practices, shows [that] the system is in need of fundamental change," he said.

Legislation proposed by Mr. Meehan and other Democrats urged new rules to require wider disclosure of and controls on contacts lawmakers have with lobbyists. However, the legislation has never made it to a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

Another continuing controversy involves the tools lawmakers have to uphold ethical standards, which in the House takes the form of an Ethics Committee. Democrats and Republicans have argued for months about the rules governing the committee's operations, with Democrats alleging Republicans were using the panel to protect Mr. DeLay.

The complexities and continuing disagreements over how the Ethics Committee is run were evident in an exchange earlier this year between then Majority Leader DeLay and the House Minority Whip Congressman Steny Hoyer:

Now with a new staff director, the Ethics Committee faces the prospect of considering cases involving not only Mr. DeLay, but other lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle.

Investigations of Mr. Abramoff, and court papers filed in a guilty plea by Mr. Scanlon, are reported to have also focused on at least two other House Republicans, Congressman Bob Ney and Congressman John Doolittle, both of whom have denied wrongdoing.

Earlier this year, investigations of Mr. Abramoff and his financing of trips by Mr. DeLay also focused attention on two House Democrats, Congressman Jim Clyburn and Bennie Thompson. Another Democrat, Congressman William Jefferson, was under investigation on an un-related matter.

The ethical cloud also grew to envelope Senate Republican Majority Leader, Bill Frist, whose sale of stock in a blind trust was being investigated by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. He has also denied wrongdoing.

The new debate about ethics has made Republicans nervous as they prepare to defend their hold on the House and Senate leading to mid-term elections in 2006. Adding to this nervousness are the legal troubles facing a former senior White House aide, Louis Libby, in connection with the CIA leak affair.

For their part, Democrats see great opportunities to use the debate to their advantage. But both parties know they have some substantial cleaning up to do if they are to persuade Americans that ethical standards in Congress are being upheld and enforced.

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