commentary (2006-04)

Teaching politicians the moral of the story

Right vs. Wrong

by Steve Dupree

I begin to see the problem. Rep. Bob Ney (R-scumsucker) stated publicly that he did nothing wrong. He stepped down “temporarily” from his committee leadership position in Congress until, as he says he is sure will happen, the investigation clears his name. Interestingly enough, Rep. Ney does not dispute the basic facts of the case against him (which may be the first smart move he has made in a while). He does not deny that he accepted money, favors, trips, meals, and whatever from Jack Abramoff or his assigns in return for political consideration of issues of concern to Abramoff. He does not deny doing that; he simply doesn’t believe that it was wrong that he did so.

Clearly, what we have here is congressional-level confusion over the difference between wrong and illegal. You see, what Rep. Ney did has yet to be judged in court. There is some chance that he was somehow within the letter of the law. There is a slender possibility that he has not done one single convictable thing (as argued by a really, seriously, highly paid team of lawyers whose fee will doubtless be underwritten by those who stand to gain should Ney retain freedom and power. Vicious circle, huh?). But is that where we want to be as a society? It is where we are much of the time, but is it where we want to be? Do we truly wish to conflate the concepts of wrong and illegal? I think not.

Human language is limited. Spoken or written language is an attempt to express a thought, idea, or ideal. The entirety of the legal community is built upon the fact that words mean different things to different people, and that no contract or document can contain enough words to cover all eventualities or possibilities. Many legal scholars do little but argue the intent of framers of certain laws when those laws were written. At some point, we all have to pretty much agree on a baseline of behavior. We agree that some things are right and some things are wrong, and human adults know the difference.

So lets revisit the actions of Rep. Ney. He campaigned for a specific job. He asked for money from friends and strangers so as to finance his campaign. In essence, he begged to be allowed to represent the people of his congressional district specifically, and all Americans in general, in an ethical and acceptable manner. He did not campaign to represent the interests of lobbyists with lots of money to spread around. But that is what he did. I rather seriously doubt that any common constituent of Ney had anywhere near the access to him that most any of Abramoff’s associates had. I also doubt that any individual or small group of his common constituents got the special consideration of their issues that he routinely gave the issues dictated by Abramoff. Assuming my doubts are reasonably well founded, I fail to see how any thinking person can see what Rep. Ney did as anything other than wrong. In the convoluted and dynamic maze that is the American legal system, I can (unfortunately) see where he could possibly be found not guilty of specific illegal acts. (Although, at this time, that looks like an extremely remote possibility.)

If Rep. Ney’s actions were isolated acts, this would be an interesting case but would be of little overall import to the American political system. But that isn’t the case. There are matters of degree that may change as the investigation continues, but so far this goes all the way from out-and-out bribery down to simple campaign and PAC donations from individuals who do not necessarily have the best, or any, interests of the common constituents at heart. Duke Cunningham, Tom Delay, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, all are names that have recently been associated with corruption and who at some point claimed to be innocent of wrong doing. Cunningham has since admitted to accepting bribes. Tom Delay has relinquished his Majority Leader position. Scores of other congressional Republicans and/or their staffers are being investigated by a very Republican Justice Department. Nearly all of them claim to have done nothing wrong.

Obviously, a part of a congress-critter’s indoctrination needs to be an explanation of the difference between wrong and illegal. It should probably be repeated twice yearly. Illegal is much too vague a standard for politicians to be held to. We need to expect and demand a higher standard of behavior from them.

Although Abramoff did not give money to Democrats (groups he represented sometimes did but he did not), leading some to focus on the Republican aspect of this scandal, the overall problem clearly isn’t partisan. Rather than Right vs. Left, this is an issue of right vs. wrong. If any leaders do not understand simple and basic concepts, right, wrong, legal, illegal, I don’t think we should take the time to teach them what they should have learned from their parents. I think we need to replace them. Sooner is better than later.