The ethics of the House ethics committee
Who do they represent?
The most interesting ethical questions surrounding Charlie Rangel don’t concern him, his villas, or his rent controlled apartments. They are about the operation and purpose of the House ethics committee and what ethical perspective members of the House should bring to bear on the controversy.
Rangel, dethroned former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been charged by the ethics committee with 13 violations, including, among other sins, using his office to solicit donations to school to be named in his honor and failing to pay taxes on and report rental income from a house in the Dominican Republic. Settlement talks have stalled and Democrats are wringing their hands over the prospect of a public ethics trial for a fellow party member. It will not help their chances in the November elections.
A number of ethical perspectives in tension here, and for everyone involved. Here are a few.
First, there is the special obligation one has to himself, his life’s work, and his family. This means wanting to keep one’s job as a Congressman (or to regain one’s job as a chairman), and leads to asking the question: What process and outcome will be best for my election chances?
Second, there is obligation to one’s party, both as a matter of duties to an organization one has freely joined and also as a matter of personal integrity, in the sense of fealty to one’s political and philosophical ideology. This leads to question: What process and outcome will be best for my party’s election chances?
Third, there is an obligation to one’s country and to the House of Representatives itself. America and American democracy depends upon faith in this institution, which is damaged when one of its leaders commits ethics violations, and even more so when he’s allowed to get away with it, or given special treatment because it’s an election year or his party is in power. Interestingly, one could argue that this perspective should not lead to a full-blown trial for Rangel, since that spectacle will thrust the issue of House corruption into people’s minds. But, it’s surely more important from a public trust standpoint for the people to know that if someone does wrong, he gets punished.
Fourth, there is the question of individual justice and desert, which requires that Rangel receive fair process to determine if he is in fact guilty and that he receive the appropriate punishment if necessary. This perspective is skeptical of any settlement negotiations affected by the first two ethical viewpoints; Rangel shouldn’t have a hard or easy time because it’s good or bad for either party or for an individual politician.
As to the members of the ethics committee, which is tasked with enforcing ethics rules from a non-partisan viewpoint, only the third and fourth perspectives ought to matter at all. Justice, which the committee is to deliver, is blind; and faith in the House depends on ethics violators receiving justice.
Ethical arbitration leading to justice demands disinterestedness. Legitimate arbiters must not have a personal stake, of any kind, in the outcome of the proceedings. Otherwise, and obviously, bias will invade. This is the reason judges recuse themselves when they have a personal connection to one of the litigants. Republican committee members need to check the Democrats from acting out of concern for their party or personal elections, and vice versa. I don’t imagine this will be easy or entirely successful.
The first two, more personal perspectives have legitimacy here only as they relate to Democrats doing damage control and Republicans highlighting this point of Democratic failure. They should only come into play outside of the protected sphere of the proceedings themselves. To invade that sphere with personal politics is, in my mind, an ethical violation itself.
Photo by Flickr user RepRangel used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.