American Voters Once Again Overlook Ethical Transgressions
Charlie Rangel won a Democratic primary election for Congress in New York City yesterday, guaranteeing his re-election. Once again, voters disregarded ethical lapses by a politician and sent that person back to Washington in spite of his actions. Either voters aren’t aware of what these officials have done, or they just didn’t care. In either case, this successful bid by Rangel highlights one of the problems with the democratic process. How can voters be educated about candidates’ activities and policies? Too often, citizens vote for candidates with a familiar name or for a particular political party, while knowing little about that candidate or the party’s stances on important issues.
Rangel had been censured by the House Ethics Committee in 2010 after having been found guilty of eleven counts of ethics violations. These included a failure to pay taxes, inaccurately reporting his personal income on House documents, and improperly soliciting campaign contributions. Obviously, these violations did not matter to the voters.
Unfortunately, Rangel’s re-election is not an isolated incident as many ethically challenged Congressmen, Senators and lower level politicians get re-elected after their misdeeds have become public knowledge. Unless the violation is so horrendous that backing from colleagues isn’t forthcoming, other party members first rush in to offer emotional and financial support to their disgraced associate. Then when the electorate has a chance to pass judgment in a primary or general election, the voters drop the ball and re-elect guilty candidates.
Emblematic of the way voters overlook violations of ethical standards by elected officials was the House Banking Scandal uncovered in 1992, which had been going on for a number of years. Hundreds of Congressmen wrote checks in excess of the money in their accounts and were covered by the House bank, which did not assess fees or penalties. Some of these overdrafts were in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Among those involved was Dick Cheney who left the House to become Secretary of Defense for the first President Bush in 1989, and then Vice President for the second President Bush. Newt Gingrich also misused the bank and was re-elected afterwards, becoming Speaker of the House in 1994. Though many of the implicated members of Congress did not stand for re-election afterwards, most of those that did were successful in their bids.
Also telling is the Keating Five scandal in 1989 that involved five Senators who received campaign contributions from Charles Keating and then supported his failing bank before federal regulators. Two were subsequently re-elected and three served out their terms though they were censured or criticized by the Senate Ethics Committee. One of those re-elected was John McCain who subsequently ran for president, his ethical missteps apparently of no concern to his party members or the electorate.
Corruption and ethical transgressions by politicians will continue until voters hold them to higher standards and refuse to re-elect men and women who have violated those standards. However, voters need to be knowledgeable about the candidates running for office. Unfortunately, enough informed voters needed to make proper judgments appear to be missing in our democracy.
A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.
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