Gingrich and the Ethics Issue
Jude Wanniski
June 5, 1989

 

Republicans are splitting into hawks and doves on congressional ethics, an issue that now seems likely to color the rest of the year's calendar and probably stretch into 1990. Rep. Newt Gingrich leads the hawks. He is determined to press ahead to achieve democratic reforms to end the systemic corruption of the Democratic House. One of his best friends, Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, has become the intellectual leader of the doves. Weber, a young man himself, reflects the views of the older members of the House and most of the Bush Cabinet who fear Gingrich's swift sword will spill blood on both sides of the aisle, disrupt the legislative harmony that has emerged thus far between the Administration and Congress, and in the end do little to further GOP objectives.

I've spoken to both men in recent days and found myself originally agreeing with Weber, believing a GOP-Democratic truce might be possible once mild-mannered Rep. Tom Foley assumes the speakership. But I've now developed a deeper appreciation for Gingrich's posture, thinking the ethics issue can't be swept aside for the sake of a legislative bone or two from the Democrats. Oddly, it was the weekend explosion in Beijing that altered my thinking. The Democratic House really has become politically corrupt, in the same sense that the entrenched leaders of China's Politburo have become: The politically corrupt are unaware of their corruption, believing they have become privileged because of their rank. The conflicts of interest and influence-peddling spotlighted by the Jim Wright/Tony Coehlo scandals are only the tip of an iceberg. I'm told there are dozens of House Democrats who have routinely enriched themselves in the same way, rationalizing away the difference between right and wrong. Republicans no doubt have gotten their fingers into the pie here and there, as we've seen in the revelations surrounding the H.U.D. housing rehab scandal. For the most part, though, House Republicans have been far from the levers of power that special-interest money is interested in buying, out of power for 35 years with no signs of return. The Democratic "case" against Gingrich's book, for example, is pathetic by comparison. As Horace Busby observes: "Unlike the Wright book, the Gingrich book made no money for anyone."

We can think of Weber and Gingrich as two student leaders on Tiananmen Square, the former arguing that non-violence and negotiation can break the hold of the corrupt power elite, the latter skeptical and provocative. When we hear the Democrats and their friends in the press offering public financing of campaigns as a reform to end the money grubbing, Gingrich seems more right than Weber. The undemocratic limits placed on individual campaign contributions is a source of the problem. A return to unimpeded private financing of elections is the democratic reform that most needs doing. Public matching funds to a limit could only work as an option to unlimited individual contributions. The Wall Street Journal is correct in stating: "Surely any new 'reform' Congress is allowed to enact for itself will disadvantage challengers explicitly to kill political competition."

Prepare, then, for a long haul, both in Washington and in Beijing. The entrenched Old Guard does not give up so easily, and we're fortunate to have Newt Gingrich willing to throw his body at the barricades. At our Boca.Raton conference in February, he predicted Jim Wright would be gone by now. Wright and Coehlo fell more easily than anyone else imagined. For all their bluster, the House Democrats now seem squishy at the core, more vulnerable than they're letting on. Pressing ahead may make it harder in the short run for Bush to advance his economic agenda, but here Gorbachev suddenly seems more right than Deng Xiaoping, Gingrich more right than Weber: Democratic political reform should take precedence over economics.