Too-familiar cries of "scandal!" are ringing throughout
Washington this holiday season. Peals of acrimony about Newt
Gingrich's ethics and Bill Clinton's fund-raising are threatening
the mood of bipartisan cooperation that's prevailed here since
November - and could further convince the public that the US
political system is filled with people who have a hard time telling
right from wrong.
This doesn't mean that the specifics of ethics charges aren't
serious, or that the problems of the president and Speaker Gingrich
are equivalent. It does mean that Washington's cycle of
investigation - in which politicians often appear to use ethics
charges as a means of partisan revenge - could accelerate the
long-term fall of voter confidence in the nation's entire political
"The perceptual problem for the public is very bad. The people's
lack of faith in their government, the decline in trust since the
1960s, is one of the most worrisome problems in the nation, from a
political science point of view," says David W. Rohde, a political
scientist at Michigan State University.
At the very least, it would be helpful if the current round of
charges led to some sort of real campaign finance reform in
Washington, says Professor Rohde. But he notes that Supreme Court
rulings that have in some measure equated political spending with
freedom of speech would make such reform difficult. "It would
surely be nice if we could use this occasion to do something about
the role of money in politics," says Rohde. "But you might need
some kind of constitutional amendment."
The latest spate of charges deal with Congressman Gingrich. Over
the weekend, Gingrich admitted that he had broken House ethics
rules by failing to ensure that the financing of a college course
he taught, among other things, did not violate federal tax laws. He
also admitted that he had given the House ethics panel that
investigated these projects false information about their details.
The full House Ethics Committee must now vote on punishment.
Republicans, claiming that Gingrich's misdeeds were inadvertent and
dealt with arcane tax law, are urging that the Speaker be merely
reprimanded. Many Democrats, saying that Gingrich is far from naive
about finance laws and that an average citizen might go to jail for
the same violation, are calling for a censure that might cause the
Georgia Republican to lose his Speaker's chair.
At this writing Gingrich appears secure in his speakership. Some
Republicans who had worried about the charges seem to be rallying
behind the man who led the 1994 GOP takeover of the House. …