Ethics reform is one of the prime issues lawmakers are grappling with in the newly formed Democratically-controlled Congress. This comes after former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay resigned from Congress because of money laundering charges, the convictions of two other House Republicans on corruption counts and the resignation of a Florida Congressman after he sent improper messages to teenage House pages. From Capitol Hill, Chad Pergram examines the allure of power in Washington and what makes politicians go wrong.
This is the dividing line between the rest of the country and the arc of political power. It’s I-495. The Circle freeway that rings Washington. Step inside it and you’re “inside” the Beltway. There’s little surprise many outside of Washington…believe the city is a noxious place. Kind of like in Star Wars…when Obi-Wan Kenobi…takes young Luke Skywalker to the depraved desert city of Mos Eisley.
“Mos Eisley spaceport. Never before as there been such a wretched hive of scum and villainy….”
A buffet of ethics scandals prompted many Americans to wonder if Washington is “this” galaxy’s version of Mos Eisley. Democratic Texas Congressman Al Green says could explain why a Wall Street Journal poll pegged the country’s approval rating of Congress at 16 percent.
“When the people see the actions of some, I understand how they can become disenchanted.”
Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn says power generates a false air around lawmakers.
“I’ve been in office and I’ve been out of office. And I noticed when I’ve been elected and serving in office, some people think my jokes are a lot funnier.”
Cornyn says there’s an air around lawmakers. That’s why lobbyists team around Members of Congress…if they think they can wield influence.
“You have lobbyists and other people who come to you and want things done. And it’s you have constituents who come to you and ask for you to do things which are perfectly legitimate requests and I think sometimes people just cut corners and fail to draw a clear line between what’s permissible and what’s not.”
American University Professor James Thurber says Washington brews an intoxicating elixir that entices many lawmakers.
“Culturally in Washington, DC, once you’re elected to become a member of the House, all of a sudden you’re a very special person. You’re on a stage where everyone wants to talk to you. That is the beginning of the seduction.”
This is where some of that seduction starts. At the base of Capitol Hill. There you’ll find a number of high-end restaurants like this one: Johnny’s Half-Shell. During many lunch and dinner hours, it could double as a Congressional mess hall where lobbyists, lawmakers and aides congregate to talk shop.
Jeff Dufour writes about the confluence of politics and culture in the city, for the Washington Examiner.
“For a lot of members, this is the first time they’ve come to a big city. And they’ve got certain things like cuisine and elevated culture. And you might be in a vast district that is very rural, and all of a sudden you’re in a big city with all of these temptations…and the ability to live the good life…with a little bit of power and money behind it.”
Texas Senator Cornyn says here’s where lawmakers go wrong.
“People just get seduced by the trappings of power. They begin to believe all the nice things that people say about them. And they just believe they are immune from the rules and the standards of conduct that govern all of us.”
But Democrats disagree. They claim they’ll run the most ethical Congress in history.
That’s the talk “inside” the Beltway. But “outside,” perception is reality. And Democrats face a real challenge to scrub Washington’s image of…as Obi-Wan Kenobi said…”a wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
For Houston Public Radio, I’m Chad Pergram on Capitol Hill.