September 22, 2017

1967. Public Confidence in Congress Continues to Drop

Congress' Ethical Dilemma
Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (center) with President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew for a luncheon, January 29, 1969 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

March 8, 1967

Remember the deep freeze and the vicuña coat which put so much publicity and heat on the Truman and Eisenhower administrations?

And remember all the righteous wrath and tongue-clicking speeches about morality in government that floated down from Capitol Hill at the time as senators and congressmen piously deplored the questionable ethics of the opposition party?

Well today, as often happens in official Washington, the tables have been turned—and the heat's now on the US Congress, which finally is becoming concerned about "the imperfect image" of the US Senate and the House of Representatives in the public mind.

The case of Adam Clayton Powell may have precipitated the present concern on Capitol Hill about the overall moral climate in the national legislature. But the loss of reputation has been many years in the working, as indicated by a recent Gallup poll that really shook up the current Congress.

The Gallup people asked Americans across the country whether they thought their senators and representatives misused government money as a fairly common practice. Only 21 percent of those polled expressed complete faith in the honesty of the men they elected to Washington. 19 percent said they didn't know. And a whopping 60 percent allowed as how the misuse of public money by members of Congress was a fairly common thing.

Both Republican and Democratic leaders are worried about a so-called "crisis in confidence" in the Congress. And they expect the situation to get worse before it gets better. This Powell case will be kept in the public eye through the New York congressman's legal efforts to force the House of Representatives to seat him, and also through the special election in Harlem next month.

And on Monday the question of congressional morality again will make headlines when the Senate Ethics Committee reopens its investigation of Connecticut's Senator Thomas Dodd, who is accused of converting political campaign funds to his personal use. Dodd denies the charges.

Most Democrats and Republicans agree that it's impossible to codify integrity or legislate propriety. Over the decades, both the House and the Senate have established precedents which allow members with big oil holdings to promote legislation benefiting the petroleum industry. Congressmen who own big farms can sit on key committees and vote major price supports for crops they raise on their own land. Bankers can sit on committees which form laws affecting fiscal and banking policies.

And even now, it's not considered completely improper in the current Congress to practice a bit of polite nepotism. A recent Associated Press survey revealed that more than fifty senators and representatives had their wives, sons, or daughters or some other relative on their payrolls at some time during the past year.

It seems to be inevitable that the House will again attempt to draw up a code of ethics for its members. The Senate already has an Ethics Committee, which after many years has not gotten around to drawing up a code of behavior—although the committee says it will produce one this year for sure.

Joe Clark of Pennsylvania and Clifford Case of New Jersey are proposing legislation which would require every senator to reveal in detail his personal wealth and sources of income.

Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, however, regards such disclosure regulations as childish. "I did not give up my citizenship when I came to the Senate," Dirksen declares.

The late Senator Robert Kerr of Oklahoma took another tack. Kerr was an oil millionaire who voted enthusiastically for all legislation benefiting the petroleum industry.

"My constituents expected me to do it," the Oklahoma Democrat used to say. "After all, Oklahoma is an oil state. Hell, if everyone abstained from voting on the grounds of personal interest, I doubt you could get a quorum in the United States Senate on any subject."

Was he right—or was he wrong?

This is Bill Downs for ABC in Washington.