Like the flag and apple pie, ethics in government is one of those topics that everybody is for and nobody is against. Yet two pieces of proposed legislation dealing with this subject raise several questions.
U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III has agreed some say reluctantly to have the Justice Department push Congress for a tough new anti-public corruption law.Congress already is dealing with a second measure the Integrity in Post-Employment Act to tighten the rules on influence peddling by appointed and elected officials after they leave office.
The anti-public corruption legislation would make it a federal crime for public officials to deprive citizens of "honest services" in office. It would also criminalize election fraud.
While there is no objection to harsher election fraud laws, there are some worrisome aspects to a federal law on public corruption. First of all, there are plenty of state and local laws on the subject. Is it necessary to make this a federal crime?
Local governments generally do a good job in cleaning up their problems without dragging in the feds. If local officials violate local laws, let local prosecutors handle it.
The U.S. Supreme Court dealt this issue a glancing blow last June. The court said that federal mail and wire fraud laws could not be used to prosecute local public corruption. Justices said mail and wire fraud must deal with specific violations of those laws, and not some "intangible right, such as the right to have public officials perform their duties honestly."
In sum, the proposed new law would vastly extend the power of the federal government over local public officials and how they act in office. Unhappily, Congress has not been visibly impressed in the past by such arguments against the expansion of federal powers.
The bill on lobbying would prohibit executive branch officials and Congress from any lobbying for a year after they left office. The nice thing about this bill is that Congress at least included itself this time.
However, the proposed law does raise free questions about free speech. It's hard to prohibit ex-officials from talking to other people. And like most ethics laws, there are areas of gray.
In actual practice, it may not change much of what happens in Washington, a city that lives on influence peddling. But a tougher law may clean up some of the most flagrant abuses.
Congress should pass the lobbying bill. And it should stop the power grab in the proposal to make public corruption a federal crime.