"I don’t remember ..."
--Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert in response to whether he was told about Congressman Mark Foley’s electronic messages to House pages
“I know na-thing!”
--Sergeant Shultz from "Hogan’s Heroes" in response to learning of several escape schemes from Hogan and the Boys
Watching the recent House page e-mail scandal was a bit like watching a rerun of the ’70s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” where the bumbling Sergeant Schultz pleads ignorance when confronted with the Allied POWs' shady behavior.
And just when it appeared Congressional blamestorming and lack of accountability couldn't get worse, the House Committee on Standards of Ethical Conduct released its report last week--practically absolving everyone that should have been responsible for overseeing the page program. In the process, the Committee’s report may have succeeded in accomplishing the impossible: further lowering what appeared to be the worst public perception of Congress in generations.
The disputed issue in the report wasn’t former Congressman Mark Foley’s professional conduct relating to several former Congressional pages and some racy e-mails he sent them. He paid for his sins by resigning in disgrace. The issue was who knew what when, and what they did about it.
A parade of high-ranking members of Congress and senior staff was subpoenaed, questioned and “investigated.” Chief among them was Republican leader Dennis Hastert, who sounded a bit like Sergeant Schultz himself as he claimed that the numerous attempts to raise the alarm regarding Foley’s explicit and inappropriate flirting with current and former House pages never reached his desk.
The report, just off the presses, found that “not a single current Member or staff violated House Rule 23 known as the “Code of Official Conduct.” Apparently, the Code means that unless you are photographed in an unethical act with a minor and there are numerous corroborating witnesses, as a member of Congress, you will be forgiven. However, if you knew about the unethical act and did nothing you may actually get a promotion to a better committee assignment.
The Committee’s investigation found plenty of fault with the Republican leadership and staff, and there was plenty of indignant moral outrage in the report the likes of which would make great fodder for a Jerry Falwell speech. However, at the end of the day, no one will pay a fine, be reprimanded, or even be publicly singled out for not acting on the extensive and repeated warnings that a perv was running amuck in the House for years.
The report sternly says that “the failure to exhaust all reasonable efforts to call attention to potential misconduct involving a Member of the House and House Page, is not merely poor judgment; it is a present danger to House Pages and to the integrity of the institution of the House.” With such strong language and potential consequences one would think someone other than Mark Foley should be held responsible for not keeping a closer eye on the pages. Nope. In the U.S. Congress, the buck stops nowhere.
The absurd findings of the Committee demonstrate the very real and insidious problem of elected officials at all levels of government being allowed to police themselves. More often than not they will talk tough while allowing their colleagues to get off the hook for unethical behavior.
If there is one lesson from the Foley page scandal and the numerous others that preceded it, it is that Congress needs an external independent body overseeing their behavior. There is too much power concentrated in the U.S. Congress to hope that members will police themselves. It’s not only naïve to think so, it's unrealistic.
An independent oversight entity could be modeled on other federal commissions with members representing both parties, with staggered terms and a chair chosen by the membership. The ethics commission should have subpoena authority and a real budget to pursue potential misconduct by members of Congress and their staffs.
Here in New Mexico, we face some of the same scandals that have plagued Congress and numerous other state legislatures. While there are no reports of New Mexico legislators chasing young boys, there are plenty of other issues related to potential conflicts, professional behavior and internal transparency rules that merit external oversight.
One of the recommendations of the governor’s Ethics Taskforce is to form such an independent ethics commission for state officials. Currently, the State Legislature has an ethics system similar to that of the U.S. Congress. A group of sitting legislators consider what sanctions, if any, should be applied to their colleagues who break the rules. Is ethical government really being promoted by having colleagues evaluate each other's behavior knowing that next time they may be the person appearing before the committee?
If the recent House report on the Foley scandal is any indication, we're fooling ourselves thinking Congress and other elected bodies can oversee their own ethical behavior. The Sergeant Schultz approach to oversight might make for a great sitcom, but it makes for terrible governance. Let’s hope the recent change in Congress will bring with it needed changes in how we hold our elected leaders to the highest ethical standards.