Lee Hamilton '52 Writes of Vital Issue Congress Won't Confront
November 17, 2012
"With the elections over, Congress faces a full plate of tough issues when it reconvenes," writes Lee Hamilton. "There will be a lot of talk about fiscal matters, “grand bargains,” and sorting out party caucuses. But there’s one vitally important question we’re certain to hear nothing about. That is Congress’s own behavior -- and more specifically, the behavior of its members."
The veteran statesman and 1952 DePauw University graduate continues, "After what may be the most widely panned session in modern congressional history, Capitol Hill ought to use every means possible to rebuild the American people’s trust. Yet the matter over which it has the most control -- striving to ensure the ethical behavior of its members -- seems to be on no one’s agenda."
The Democrat who served 34 years in Congress points to a Washington Post report which "found that 130 members and their families had traded stock in companies registered to lobby before their committees -- and that over 5,000 of those trades occurred as the bills those companies were interested in came before Congress. In some cases, the ethics were even dicier. One lawmaker put her name on legislation extending the lifespan of federal grazing permits -- which her husband used for feeding his cattle. All told, the Post found, 73 members of Congress 'sponsored or co-sponsored legislation in recent years that could benefit businesses or industries in which either they or their family members are involved or invested.' "
Congress itself doesn't seem troubled by those revelations, or others that suggest lawmakers "enact bills and direct federal money that just happens to boost their financial prospects ... Ethics watchdogs believe the committees are more interested in protecting members than in overseeing them. It’s hard to argue with them when the Post investigation found that the ethics committees had given scores of lawmakers permission to direct earmarks to projects close to their own homes and tax money to institutions where they had relatives on the board."
The op-ed column concludes, "This matters at the moment not just because Congress’s credibility is in the tank. Four years ago Congress did act -- though only under great pressure -- to improve its ethical standing. It created the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent monitor that has used its scant power effectively to review members’ behavior and recommend action. Some of the cases it brought were so compelling they even spurred the ethics committees to investigate. The OCE seems properly to view congressional office as a public trust. This may be because its board is made up of highly respected former members and public servants. For the office to continue its work, however, half those board members will need to be replaced by the start of the new congressional term in January, because their terms are expiring. So far, House leaders of both parties -- who are charged with naming the board -- have dragged their heels."
Read the complete column at the website of Massachusetts' Taunton Daily Gazette.
Lee H. Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group, is now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He majored in history as an undergraduate and starred on the Tiger basketball team (and is a member of both the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and the DePauw Athletic Hall of Fame).
Hamilton has been a frequent visitor to DePauw over the years, having presented commencement addresses in 1971 and 1998. He also was among the presenters at DePauw Discourse in 2006 and 2008 and delivered an Ubben Lecture on March 15, 2011.Back