Tuesday, April 19, 2005

It's the sleaze, stupid

I'm surprised we haven't heard more about this exchange last Sunday between Steny Hoyer, the House Minority Whip, and the Roy Blunt, the House Majority Whip, on the three rebukes Tom DeLay received last year from the House Ethics Committee. Here's Blunt being, well, blunt:
This idea that Tom DeLay was admonished by the Ethics Committee, that's not even something available to the Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee is supposed to say you violated the rules of the House or you did not. They're not supposed to say publicly: You're too close, we think you should be more careful about the rules. That's why the rules, that's why the lines are drawn where they are. This has never been a committee that evaluated how a member acted within the rules, and in fact, by saying you're not over the line but we think you're a little close, they're actually saying you're in the rules of the House.
Leave aside the amazing suggestion that some conclusions of the Ethics Committee should not be aired "publicly." What Blunt's statement mainly shows is a total misunderstanding of (or perhaps brazen contempt for) what ethics are all about.

If we were talking about law, then Blunt's position would make sense: in criminal law, either you are guilty or you are not guilty -- it's binary. But in the case of DeLay's behavior in the House we are not talking about criminal violations (although a criminal spectre does hang over Delay's behavior back home in Texas); what we're talking about are ethical violations. And in ethics, in addition to black and white cases, there are all sorts of shades of gray. Those areas of gray constitute the great realm known colloquially as "sleaze."

If there's one thing we learned from the Clinton years, it is that once you try to wriggle out of ethics questions by referencing legal niceties, you have already crossed the point of ethical no return.

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