Lawmakers may fail when it comes to ethics, but they try

June 21, 2011

I winced upon reading the results of The Hill’s poll that found “(m)ore than two-thirds of voters think the ethical standards of politicians have declined over the past generation” and that a majority think they are “unethical” (“HILL POLL: Politicians, Congress unethical — and getting worse,” June 13). The poll’s findings were disappointing, as I know members of Congress are more ethical than portrayed in the media, and much more ethical than decades ago. (I also would quibble with the timing of the poll. After the last few weeks, putting Congress up for an ethics test with the American public is a little like asking someone to enter a beauty contest after 15 rounds with Mike Tyson.)

I started on Capitol Hill as a reporter 25 years ago and have seen a dramatic shift in ethics in Congress over the decades … for the better. Until 1989, members of Congress could receive cash payments as honoraria for speeches. For example, a chair of a powerful committee one year took in more than $200,000 from groups with interests before the committee. Lavish junkets to exotic locations occurred. (Nearly all congressional trips these days are packed with work.) Even parking tickets in D.C. could be “fixed” by the House Sergeant at Arms.

My organization has worked closely with members of Congress and staff for more than 30 years and found nearly every lawmaker and staffer we’ve worked with to be dedicated public servants, striving for the good of their constituents. Of course there are ethical lapses in Congress, just as there are in any field, including journalism. But that’s not the whole story.

While D.C. was “atwitter” over certain congressional tweets last week, here’s what you missed. One member helped a nonprofit raise funds for breast cancer research; another hosted a session with federal agencies to help flood victims in his state; and a third member went to bat for the family of a Vietnam War veteran who was denied death benefits.

This is the Congress I know and see every day, filled with members spending their time trying to do right by the American people.

Bradford Fitch is the President 
and CEO of the Congressional 
Management Foundation in Washington, DC.


This article was originally published on The Hill.  It is reprinted here with permission.


Bradford Fitch