Spotlight on ethics in D.C. benefits nation

Public pressure has forced a new concern over ethics violations, which should serve to reduce bad behavior in Congress.

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The nation's capital seems to be in another world. Or, at least, it has a culture the rest of America doesn't always embrace. Things that are accepted as the norm in Washington, D.C., are often looked at as, well, wrong elsewhere.

Take, for example, the tradition in Washington of using power and influence to trade favors for favors. Although, those in the capital like to put a little shine on the practice by referring to it with the Latin phrase, quid pro quo (something for something).

Well, times are changing. Members of Congress engaged in business as usual are finding themselves at the center of ethics investigations.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-New York, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., are facing public ethics trials for what they claim is just doing their jobs.

And Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is under investigation for allegedly trying to influence federal regulators at the request of a former aide, whose wife had an affair with the senator.

A few years back this stuff was seen as acceptable. Folks looked the other way. No more.

And that's a very good thing.

Now, it might turn out that Rangel, Waters and Ensign are cleared. Nevertheless, it does seem investigations are warranted.

New York Times reporters Eric Lipton and Eric Lichtblau focused last week on what they saw as "a new vigilance in policing ethics" in Washington.

"The charges reflect, in part, a heightened sensitivity in Washington to indiscretions by members of Congress. The House ethics committee, which has brought the charges, has come under fire for failing to hold lawmakers accountable in previous investigations," The Times reporters wrote in a news analysis.

"Both cases also involve personal causes -- for Ms. Waters, the financial investments of her husband, and for Mr. Rangel, an education center set up in his name in New York. With their integrity under attack after widespread news reports, Mr. Rangel and Ms. Waters are fighting the charges instead of simply accepting a modest punishment.

"As a result, Washington has suddenly become fixated on ethics issues, including the continuing investigation of (Ensign). ...

"'This wave of activity will remind members (of Congress) and staff that this is an era of more vigilance and scrutiny and they need to be much more careful about what they do,' said Abbe D. Lowell, a Washington defense lawyer who has handled a number of ethics inquiries. 'The public's low esteem for Congress and the appearance of inappropriate conduct in general have to be confronted and dealt with.'"

The best way of dealing with the appearance of inappropriate conduct is to not engage in inappropriate conduct.

Unfortunately, it's probably going to take more ethics probes and public outrage for that concept to fully take hold.

Still, the change in attitude on ethics is a positive development for the nation's capital -- and the nation.

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