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Cautionary Tales

Every few years, Capitol Hill weathers a blizzard of scandals that leaves all who work in Congress or who watch it shaking their heads in dismay.

Not that long ago, scandalous revelations rocked the House Bank, the House Post Office, the Keating Five, then-Sen. David Durenberger, then-House Speaker Jim Wright, and then-House Majority Whip Tony Coelho. The public responded by gradually getting into such an anti-incumbent mood that the Democrats' House majority was wiped out in November 1994.

After each set of scandals, lawmakers seem to watch their p's and q's for a while, but then some of the veterans fall back into bad habits and some newcomers succumb to age-old temptations. As soon as previous scandals are out of sight, the prospect of getting caught apparently is out of mind.

So, here's an idea for the House and Senate majority and minority leaders of January 2007 -- whoever they will be. Have a media consultant put together a 15-minute video that reviews the past 30 years of Capitol Hill scandals and what happened to the miscreants involved. Show it at your party's first caucus and make attendance mandatory. The ethics show would be the congressional equivalent of the gory driver's ed films used to frighten teenagers.

Just think what life would be like for House Democrats right now if Alan Mollohan of West Virginia and William Jefferson of Louisiana had behaved themselves a bit better. Democrats would have the moral high ground.

And what about Republicans? For them, it would be bad enough to have to deal with a midterm election while the White House is occupied by an unpopular president from their party who is conducting an unpopular war and whose most recent CNN/USA Today/ Gallup poll job-approval rating is just 7 points above what President Nixon's was when Marine One took him back to San Clemente. But they also have former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham of California, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, and lobbyist Jack Abramoff as millstones around their necks.

There isn't a whole lot that Republicans can do about Iraq and Bush's unpopularity, but these other problems are, collectively speaking, self-inflicted, just as Mollohan and Jefferson are self-inflicted wounds for Democrats. I often wonder whether congressional leaders realize how ridiculous they look defending the bad behavior of their own members. Do they really think that viewers will be swayed by the contention that their party's members must be considered innocent until proven guilty if they don't give the same benefit of the doubt to the other party's lawmakers?

In addition to the scandals are the misbehavior problems, with Democrats leading the way with Cynthia McKinney's antics and Patrick Kennedy's nocturnal roamings. The Republican slips tend to attract less attention -- a random gun discovered in carry-on luggage by airport security, for example.

What I wonder is whether congressional leaders ever lecture their members on collective responsibility, remind them that their behavior reflects on the entire party caucus and on Congress as a whole, and warn them that ethics lapses jeopardize not only the offender's career but also the reputations and careers of others.

Partisanship being what it is, a member can depend on the opposition to throw a gigantic spotlight on any alleged transgression. And both sides tend to be guilty of selective outrage, becoming insufferably self-righteous about the indiscretions of opponents while turning a blind eye to misdeeds within their own party.

To me, that's one reason it's so easy to be an independent. There tends to be an equal amount of stupidity, hypocrisy, malfeasance, and even mean-spiritedness on either side of the aisle, if you look hard enough. And that makes it difficult to root for one side or the other with much enthusiasm. Most partisans just won't admit that truth.

Bring on the midnight-smashup driver's ed film on ethics. Design it to have a stomach-turning effect on politicians mentally substituting their own names in the headlines and faces in the TV footage of perp-walks. Perhaps a few more would decide that succumbing to temptation just isn't worth the risk.

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