A lot of my friends on the right are delighting in the spectacle of Rep. Charles Rangel and Rep. Maxine Waters both heading for trials before the House Ethics Committee, but I have to say I find the whole thing misguided. And it's not just that I have a soft spot for Mr. Rangel going back ten years, to the 2000 interview with Businessweek (cited in this New York Sun editorial), in which Mr. Rangel was asked if he would support a cut in the capital gains tax. "I have no problem reducing the tax burden for people who take risks," he replied at the time. Jude Wanniski reported in 1997 that on the capital gains tax, "Charlie has been telling me for years that he favors indexation," that is, the idea that the capital gains tax should apply to only real, after-inflation gains.
But the whole idea that the members of the House should be policing each others' ethics is just nonsense. It's not a power that is delegated to them under Article I of the Constitution. (A friend points to the clause "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member," but it's hard to see how what Mr. Rangel or Ms. Waters is accused of amounts to being disorderly.)
When the House ethicists tried this against Newt Gingrich back in 1997, Paul Gigot, then a Washington columnist of the Wall Street Journal, went on the PBS News Hour to assert, correctly, that "in the last 20 years what's happened is ethics had become tools of partisan warfare" and to dismiss the allegations as "a smoking gun without any smoke and no gun." Now that it's a Democrat in the dock, Mr. Gigot is piling on from his perch as editor of the Journal editorial page. We think Mr. Gigot, who is a giant, had it right back in 1997.
No, the checks that the founders envisioned on the powers of Congress were not an ethics committee but regular elections, an independent judiciary with the power to convict a congressman of a crime, and a president with the power to veto corrupt legislation.
If Congress were actually interested in ethics rather than in the mere appearance of ethics, it would lift the limits on campaign contributions. That would allow a candidate who wanted to challenge an incumbent like Mr. Rangel or Ms. Waters a better chance to raise enough money to make the case against the incumbent to the voters. It's the voters, not the other politicians sitting in judgment of their peers on some ethics committee, who can best judge the ethics of an elected official in a case that falls short of a crime. And if a crime has been committed, let it be prosecuted, rather than being sloughed off as some reprimand or censure by some "ethics" committee.
On the substance of the various charges against Mr. Rangel, it just seems bizarre to fault him for trying to raise private money for an academic center that otherwise would have probably been funded out of taxpayer dollars, which would have been worse. On the rent control matters, the scandal isn't Mr. Rangel but the whole system. The most serious matter appears to be the IRS issues involving income from a rental villa. It's hard to see how on that one the House ethics cops are in any better position to pass judgment on the matter than is the IRS.
On Ms. Waters, the charges relate to conflicts involving her husband's business. Unless the House is going to start hauling in every member with a potential conflict -- half of them seem to have spouses or children who are lobbyists, and the others seem to have businesses affected by tax or trade laws, government regulations, or government contracts -- it's hard to see how the House guardians of ethics are better suited to judge the matter than are the voters in Ms. Waters' district.
Oh — one final and very important point. At the risk of being misunderstood and at the risk of being accused, falsely, of racism (which would be a strange charge because I am actually defending Mr. Rangel and Ms. Waters), let me say that other thing that Congress would do if it were actually interested in ethics rather than the mere appearance of it would be to rewrite the Voting Rights Act of 1982, or at least reconsider it. As the center-left Jon Meacham (who went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and editor of Newsweek) put it in an article in the neoliberal Washington Monthly back in 1993, "A minority voter in a majority-minority district--virtually all of which are heavily Democratic--has no real choice to make between the two major parties. Democrats are the only players on the field."
Of course, lots of incumbent congressmen in majority-white districts don't have much competition either. But the point is that the best assurance of congressional ethics is genuinely contested elections (which neither Mr. Rangel nor Ms. Waters has faced for some time), not the machinations of some congressional ethics committee. I'd be happy if Congress would stop messing around with ethics (better left to philosophers and clergymen, anyway) and just concentrate on figuring out a way to balance the budget without raising taxes.