by former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), Issue One ReFormers Caucus Co-Chair.
Congress faces a party-straddling, demographic-spanning six percent approval rating from voters outside of the Swamp. As one voter said, “They don’t care about people like me anymore.”
Americans believe Washington lacks integrity and that elected officials have forgotten it is character, constituents and consumers who really matter. But instead of taking time to change the creeping, self-dealing culture in Congress, politicians retreat to cramped cubicles and K Street lunches to raise enough money to convince voters — and themselves — that they don’t have an ethics problem.
I’m here to say that both parties need an ethical makeover. Republicans as the majority party should take the lead on a long-overdue return to traditional values and principles in our government. After all, there is nothing conservative about condoning misconduct or poor behavior.
Any incumbent with free time, a call sheet and a phone can raise money for re-election — as candidates for 2018 have done to the tune of nearly a half billion dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But it takes a dedicated public servant to wake up and prioritize the needs of the American people over their own, every day.
Consider these few examples: Who among average Americans believes it is ethical for lawmakers to actively day trade stocks in companies when they have legislative power to directly affect those same industries? Or to use leadership PACs to foot the bill for golfing trips or visits to Disney World? Or to accept campaign contributions lobbyists bundle from special interests to bring to fundraisers so the members of Congress will vote for their requests?
The first step to repairing this relationship between voters and Washington is a return to reasonable standards of behavior. The legislative branch cannot hope to address the most critical issues facing the country — rising health care costs, the prescription drug epidemic or the student loan crisis, for example — if they are not trusted by the very voters who put them in office.
I served in Congress for 16 years, but public opinion has sunk low enough today that as soon as a freshman member of Congress sets foot in the swamp, voters assume he or she is on the take. Elected leaders start with a strike against them, and that is all it takes to inspire a primary opponent or spin-up negative political attacks.
It’s time to change that impression and provide the stability and faith in a fair system that our economy needs to flourish. That is only possible with clear, consistent ethical guidelines that public servants and the electorate both agree to.
Additionally, a belief in the free market and limited government is rooted in common-sense values and virtues. We do not need a government for every problem nor should it spend taxpayer dollars correcting every issue. Instead, lawmakers should agree to play by reasonable rules and punish bad actors, no matter which political party they are aligned with.
Some say Congress is in chaos; I say there’s no better time to take out the trash than when your house is in disarray. If elected officials will not hold themselves accountable, then voters will do it for them in 2018 and 2020.
Change will not be easy. I suffered the scars from standing up for energy reform, health care reform and overhauling the tax code, among other fundamental issues, while I served in Congress for eight terms. Culture is more difficult to change than policy. But every debate was worth it, and I made more friends than enemies when I tried to do the right thing. A few bad actors should not tarnish everyone in a political party.
It is also members’ responsibility to avoid conflicts of interest, no matter how difficult. Anything less looks like a sweetheart deal to voters outside the beltway who are ready believe “Washington is rigged,” in the words of President Trump.
We need bright lines and strong traditions that leave no room for doubt that there are real consequences for unethical behavior. Washington is alluring, complex and overwhelming, and a place where outsiders frequently become insiders, forgetting why they ran for office in the first place.
But high standards of behavior are the glue that hold a democracy together. Americans detest the notion that elected leaders receive special treatment unavailable to anyone else.
Politics is by definition a bruising, difficult and sometimes ugly business. But that does not mean it should be dirty, unethical or illegal. Our nation’s traditions of honor and virtue are worth holding high in the 21st century or they may be lost to eternity.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.