Tighter Ethics Rules Won't Prevent Future Jesse Jackson Jrs.

It would be comforting to think that episodes like the Jesse Jefferson case would stop if we simply tightened the rules on congressional ethics.

By + More
Former Illinois Rep. Jessie Jackson, Jr leaves federal court in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, after he entered a guilty plea to criminal charges that he engaged in a scheme to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items.

The case of former representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. is exactly the sort of episode that makes people call for stricter ethics rules for members of Congress. But if anything, the disgraced congressman's behavior shows how ineffective it can be to tighten ethics rule more and more to prevent corruption.

Jackson pleaded guilty to stealing some $750,000 in campaign funds for personal use, including pricey dinners, a Rolex watch and (most embarrassingly) a fedora that belonged to the late singer Michael Jackson. Jackson's wife also admitted being guilty of not accounting for the money on their income tax returns.

It always looks awful when a member of Congress behaves this way, and the institution surely does not need more bad press at the moment. But it had nothing to do with lax ethics rules or even the environment on the Hill. On the contrary, the sense of privilege and entitlement on Capitol Hill has lessened dramatically in the nearly three decades I've been reporting on the institution, with lawmakers trying desperately to appear to be men and women of the people. Uber-strict ethics rules ban congressmen (and their staffs) from accepting gifts from many sources.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But while it's a positive step that the old system of lobbyists lavishing gifts and unlimited campaign cash on lawmakers is now not allowed, some of the ethics rules simply go too far. Is it a good idea to ban a lobbyist from paying for Caribbean vacations for committee chairmen? Of course. But the rules are punishingly severe. According to the House guidelines:

The House gift rule provides that a Member, officer, or employee may not knowingly accept any gift except as provided in the rule. The rule is comprehensive, i.e., a House Member or staff person may not accept anything of value from anyone—whether in one's personal life or one's official life—unless acceptance is allowed under one of the rule's provisions … The general gift rule provision states that a Member, officer, or employee may not accept a gift from a registered lobbyist, agent or a foreign principal, or private entity that retains or employs such individuals.

That's anything of value from anyone except under certain exemptions. And if the rule sounds like it applies only to a small class of people, it doesn't. Many, if not most, major corporations are represented by a lobbyist, either individually or as an industry. A fancy lobbyist for Big Oil offering a trip to Paris to the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee? The rule clearly prohibits that, wisely. But when read strictly, the rule also means that if a 23-year-old junior Hill staffer making $28,000 a year goes to a bar and a man offers to buy her a drink, technically she has to find out where he works and whether his firm hires a lobbyist before she can accept it. That's ridiculous—as are the tales of staffers who found that getting married or having a baby shower became bureaucratic nightmares of getting special dispensation from the Ethics Committee to receive a gravy boat or onesie from a friend.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Bribery and kickbacks are illegal, but congressmen have done it anyway. Former GOP congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham was sentenced to more than eight years in prison and ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution for taking bribes. The ethics rules didn't deter him. Former Democratic congressman William Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison for taking bribes. He also was not inhibited by ethics rules.

It would be comforting to think that episodes like the Cunningham and Jefferson cases would stop if we simply tightened the rules. But it didn't stop Jackson. Sadly, people will continue to break the law no matter how much we tighten the rules. And unfortunately, innocent people are terribly inconvenienced for the transgressions of others.