Congress Has Become Oversensitive to Ethics Scandals

Congress is now so absurdly nervous about appearing to be soft on its own members that it overreacts to any suggestion of impropriety.

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Rep. Spencer Bachus was cleared this week of allegations that he committed insider trading by using privileged information to direct his stock purchases. The case against Bachus appeared a bit flimsy from the start, but unfortunately for Bachus, that doesn't really matter. A Google search of his name will always produce stories about the accusations against him.

The charges were provoked by a 60 Minutes spot, which itself was informed by a book, Throw Them All Out, which detailed the "short" options members of Congress exercised in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008. The title of the book alone suggests a more-than-healthy skepticism of Congress and its behavior. But the presumption of guilt goes far beyond the book and 60 Minutes. It's fed by political parties and candidates who dump all over Congress—then wonder why the public hates the people they elected to office. And it's fed by a public very willing—eager, even—to assume the worst from a dysfunctional Congress.

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In Bachus's case, the charge was that he went to a closed-door meeting with then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who told lawmakers what was pretty obvious by then: that the country was headed toward a massive fiscal crisis. The next day, Bachus traded on "short options that relied on the presumption of economic decline.

"Insider information? Really? A congressman—or for that matter, anyone who reads newspaper—would have to be actually in a coma, or walking around with one's hands over one's ears, saying, "la la la, I can't hear you to be unaware of how the economy was deteriorating. And one look at the ashen faces of all of the congressmen who attended the meeting with Paulson—and spoke to the press corps afterward—would have been a pretty clear indicator as well.

[Washington Whispers: Facebook and Twitter Cause Insider Trading Headaches for the SEC]

Still, the relatively new level of ethics bureaucracy, the Office of Congressional Ethics, investigated, anyway, a development that was reported across the country. Bachus's exoneration was reported, as well, but damage has already been done to both the Financial Services Committee chairman and to Congress as a whole. Any investigation tends to confirm a negative view of the institution and the lawmaker, and there are those (judging from anonymous message boards on the Internet) who still believe that Bachus was guilty of something but was merely protected by his brethren.

Ethics are an important standard to uphold, and Congress should indeed monitor the behavior of its members and punish transgressors. But Congress is now so absurdly nervous about appearing to be soft on its own members that it overreacts to any suggestion of impropriety. The individual members should take some responsibility, too. Freshmen, especially, tend to run for office by running against Congress, telling voters how corrupt and useless the institution is. Is it any surprise, then, when voters transfer that contempt to the member, once he or she is elected?

Bachus was gracious about the investigation and has been admirably lacking in bitterness now that he has been cleared. But even unfounded allegations damage the institution, and with it, public faith in our democratic system.

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