Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ethics Gone Wild?

I love ethics.  Ethics are good.  We should all have them, especially in Washington, D.C. 

At the same time, it's important to note that ethics are really, really hard to establish by rule or legislation.  Codes are useful.  Outlines are useful.  Even "guidelines" (like the Pirate code) are useful.  But when we start trying to control everyone's actions down to the minute there are some unintended consequences.  Here are some examples:
  • The Toothpick Rule:  No member of Congress or staff person may accept a "meal" from a lobbyist.  The intent was to stop all those three-martini lunches we hear so much about (BTW, I've been in DC for 24 years and no one has taken me to a three-martini lunch.  What am I doing wrong?).  However, have you tried to define a "meal?" Turns out it's not as easy as you think.  Is it sitting down?  Is it a reception? Does it have to include alcohol? Does breakfast count (first meal of the day?).  The result of seeking to clarify this is that members of Congress and their staff can attend an event where there might be  food and lobbyists ONLY if there are no chairs in the room (so they can't sit down) and ONLY if the food itself can fit on a toothpick.  Sure, you can eat as many toothpicked items as you want -- just don't sit.
  • The "No Awards in the Wrong Room" Rule:  One of my colleagues just told me about this one.  We all know that organizations like to recognize members of Congress who have been particularly helpful on an issue.  For example, both the American Library Association and the Humane Society of the United States -- not exactly the most "well-heeled" special interests -- give "legislator of the year" awards. However, under this rule they cannot give the legislator a physical token of the award (plaque, etc.) if that member of Congress is the one who requested the room that the award event will be held in.  Bear in mind that the only way to get rooms on the hill is through a Congressional office.  Now, you can hand the legislator the award in another room.  Or in the hallway.  Or in the bathroom.  Just not in THAT particular room.  Huh?  Is there a concern that we're trading room space for recognition?  Seems odd. 

I'm not suggesting that ethics are not sorely needed in Washington, D.C.  I'm even a fan of Congressional codes of conduct (see the example for the House at: http://oce.house.gov/code-of-official-conduct.html -- in fact, I'll bet many Americans don't even know it exists!)  I certainly can't be an apologist for the many crazy things that happen in D.C.  But is this REALLY what we want legislators to be spending time on?  Whether a certain food will fit on a toothpick?  Or which room they accept a plaque in?  For me the answer is no.  What do you think?

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