Ethics? Who Needs Ethics?

The headline over the Washington Post article sarcastically captured the attitude of the United States Senate: "Ethics Office? We don't need no stinking ethics office!" It was a reference to a Senate committee's decision this month to shoot down a bipartisan proposal to establish an independent office to enforce congressional ethics and lobbying laws. The vote signaled the reluctance of members of either party to discipline themselves. Since that vote took place, there have been bills passed restricting free junkets and meals. But I can tell you one thing from having spent years in politics: No senator gets bought for a lunch. The real problem is much bigger: earmarking. Earmarks are the most corrupting influence on the legislative process today. What happens is, say, Congressman Doe says he wants $300,000 for his district for a feasibility study for a new bridge -- like the one Senator Ted Stevens (R) got funded in Alaska -- which goes nowhere. If Doe happens to be the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, as Senator Byrd (D) of West Virginia was for so long, he can pour billions into his state. Every congressman has the right to do earmarking. It's a game everyone plays, and each one scratches the other's back. When the congressman goes home, his constituents want to know how much money he's brought into the district. And everyone is petitioning him to bring home more and more pork. If Congressman Doe doesn't deliver the bacon year after year, he probably won't survive in the next primary. It's the modern form of the ancient vice known as the spoils system. Last year some 15,000 earmarks cost taxpayers $47 billion dollars -- and none of it goes through a budget process. They are simply monies set aside in specific spending bills for particular projects, and some of them are absolutely outrageous -- things like studying the migratory patterns of coyotes. Why should we continue to allow something that corrupts both congressmen as well as the people they represent, who demand that our congressmen bring home the goods? In the Bible, we're told the job of government is to preserve order and do justice. This can't happen if we're letting congressmen bribe us. Twelve years ago Republicans were elected on a platform of stopping this massive gravy train. But all they've done is carry this corruption to an even higher level. And for conservatives to do this is especially reprehensible. You see, liberals, historically, have been utopians, believing if they can get power, they can create the perfect society. Earmarks win support and get you elected so you can stay in power. But by contrast, conservatives do not believe that we can develop a superior ideology; conservatives live by revealed truths. The first tenet of conservatism, according to Russell Kirk, is preservation of the moral order. So in a sense, for liberals to engage in earmarking is in character: It's a means of gaining power. For conservatives it becomes sheer hypocrisy. And this is why we ought to call to account all of our legislators. The only way we're going to get rid of earmarking is through a huge groundswell of outrage from the people. And we need also to give the president a line-item veto -- and get rid of the spoils system once and for all.


Chuck Colson


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