Capitol Hill Prudes in Full Force--but Don't Police Real Wrongdoing

Resident Scholar Norman J. Ornstein
Resident Scholar
Norman J. Ornstein
The news about Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) did not come as a shock to veteran Congress-watchers; the rumors about his sexuality have circulated for many years. I suspect he pleaded guilty because he hoped against hope that a misdemeanor against a guy who was not a national figure in a state far from Idaho might escape public or press notice. It worked--for a while, until Roll Call got the scoop.

I feel deeply sorry for a man who is clearly a tortured soul, either in denial about his orientation or desperately trying for years to live a secret life while voting in ways that were a direct slap to his counterparts. The arrest itself seems to me to have been pretty close to entrapment, but the behavior itself, even if it is not uncommon for those trying to satisfy their urges in the most covert way possible, is tawdry at best.

That said, the way Craig, a well-liked Senate veteran and party and Bush loyalist, was treated by his Republican colleagues was, well, tawdry. They cut him no slack--unlike the way they have treated many other peers, from Ted Stevens (Alaska) to Pete Domenici (N.M.) to David Vitter (La.). Of course, his conduct deserved a Senate ethics investigation, and probably censure.

The Senate, unfortunately, is utterly obtuse, caught up in its own arrogance and smugness, when it comes to understanding the need for a truly credible independent component to ethics investigations.

But Craig is not a monster--just a pathetic figure. The failure to give him any time to breathe or explain before throwing him overboard has little if anything to do with the fact that he pleaded to a misdemeanor, while others have not yet been charged. It has to do with two things: the cascade of scandals hitting Republicans, leading to a need to cauterize any new wound, and the fact that this was homosexual misbehavior, not tawdry heterosexual sex.

If it were otherwise, Republicans would be waiting in line to denounce Vitter for frequenting brothels and to get distance from Rudy Giuliani, who conducted a ridiculously public extramarital affair right in front of his children while serving as mayor of New York. The conspicuous silence in these cases by every one of those who immediately denounced Craig is pretty persuasive evidence to me of what the Craig matter represents.

Of course, the Senate Ethics Committee likely will suspend its nascent investigation of Craig now that he appears to be on his way out of the chamber. But this case, as well as the other pending ethics issues and the possibility that others eventually will get caught up in the ongoing Jack Abramoff-related probe by the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department, underscores yet again the inadequacy of the Senate's ethics processes.

Who believes that the ethics committee will act proactively to investigate allegedly scandalous behavior before stories garner headlines or result in announcements by prosecutors that Senators are targets or subjects of investigations (which almost always result in the committee suspending any ethics case to avoid interfering with the criminal process)?

The Senate, unfortunately, is utterly obtuse, caught up in its own arrogance and smugness, when it comes to understanding the need for a truly credible independent component to ethics investigations. Earlier this year, the chamber rejected by a large margin a sensible and balanced proposal to supplement the existing internal ethics panel with an office of public integrity authored by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and others. That was a mistake. The House now has a chance this fall to show the Senate how to do things, when Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano's task force reports out a recommendation to create just such an independent panel. With plenty of scandals and embarrassments brewing in the House as well, it would be well-advised to do so soon.

On to another matter generated by scandal. In this case, it was Janet Jackson's partially exposed breast on national broadcast television at the Super Bowl halftime show a couple of years ago. That particular outrage had lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission falling all over themselves to protect innocent Americans from bad images, or even worse, bad language transmitted over the nation's airwaves. The FCC set up a new system to fine broadcasters who let such awful things happen, even if they were inadvertent, and Congress insisted that the fines be made astronomical ($325,000 worth for serious offenses such as the F-word). This was one of the few thoroughly bipartisan acts by Congress in the past few years.

No doubt, to appear as the guardians of purity over the airwaves looks good and sounds good to voters. But what Congress and the FCC have wrought is a big mess. You can define obscenity in clear-cut terms, by detailing specific words and phrases--and it was a hoot to see Congress, in its efforts to protect impressionable young people, make sure all those words were inserted in the Congressional Record.

But any serious attempt to do something like this gets trapped hopelessly in the real world. Did Congress and the FCC mean to censor "Saving Private Ryan" or "Schindler's List"? Of course not, and the FCC said these sterling works of art could appear uncut in prime time to preserve the historical accuracy and the artistic vision of Steven Spielberg.

But when a tiny public broadcasting station inadvertently aired a few naughty words spoken by musicians in Martin Scorsese's magisterial series "Jazz," it got socked with a $15,000 fine--not much, but a huge chunk of a small station's budget. Is Scorsese, one of the greatest directors of all time, less deserving of slack for his artistic vision than Spielberg? Apparently he is to FCC censors egged on by Congress.

Now, trapped by the uncertainty of a shifting standard and unwilling to risk huge fines, public broadcasting stations, including Washington's WETA, are going to self-censor Ken Burns's new series "The War."

I am on the board of PBS. I have seen some excerpts from "The War"--and what I have viewed, including the story of World War II soldier-hero Daniel Inouye, is just about the best, most riveting and compelling television I have ever seen. Soldiers used salty language. It is a core part of wartime and military experience, leading to the invention of terms such as snafu. To cut the words out of this stunning work is like putting a jockstrap on Michelangelo's "David" (in honor of his courageous hospital room behavior, former Attorney General John Ashcroft will get a pass here on draping the statue at the Justice Department).

Will somebody in Congress please have the guts to see, and say, that this policy is foolish in its construct and implementation--and then try to do something about it?

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Norman J.
Ornstein
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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