Adventures in Ethics and Science

Apparently John Murtha lost his bid to be the new Majority Leader in the House of Representatives to Rep. Steny Hoyer. In the run up to this decision, Murtha was reported as saying the House ethics reforms being proposed by Nancy Pelosi were “total crap”.

As you can imagine, that got my attention.

Below the fold, a bit of the transcript of Murtha’s interview with Chris Matthews where Murtha tries to put his comment in context.

MATTHEWS: But that’s not what you said. Didn’t you say it was total crap, what she was proposing?

MURTHA: What I said was, it’s total crap, the idea we have to deal with an issue like this, when–and it is total crap that we have to deal with an issue like this when we’ve got a war going on and we got all these other issues — $8 billion a month we’re spending–

MATTHEWS: So when this came up in the Blue Dog meeting the other night, you felt that that was a ridiculous–you thought that wasn’t the right issue to be talking about right now.

MURTHA: Exactly. I–what I’ve been trying–

MATTHEWS: And that’s really what you meant when you said total crap, because this is all over the wires as if–it sounds to me like you’re saying, I think all this goo-goo, good government stuff, is a joke.

MURTHA: And I wonder–

MATTHEWS: Do you think that? You’re laughing; do you think it’s a joke?

MURTHA: No; I wonder who said that. That’s what I’m laughing about.

MATTHEWS: Oh, you’re wondering about which person it was–

MURTHA: I wonder–it was, I think, somebody that may not be in my camp.

MATTHEWS: No, it is–it was identified as a Steny Hoyer person, in fact, in one of the other wire services.

MURTHA: What I was–

MATTHEWS: What do you think–how do you like–here’s–you’re old school. We’re in the 21st century. How do we avoid Abscams? How do we avoid problems with people like Bob Ney, putting stuff in the Congressional Record for a client, things like, you got Duke Cunningham taking a million bucks and boats and all this other stuff–how do you stop that?

MURTHA: Transparency. I think that’s the only way to stop it. And I think the regulations that Nancy’s in favor of were very important. I don’t mean to imply that they aren’t. I’d say very clearly, the crap that goes on is the thing that worries me. The thing that worries me is, we’re diverted from the real issues.

(Bold emphasis added.)

My response to Murtha here is really straightforward: Ethics is not a diversion from “real issues”. Ethics is all about the way you handle the issues.

Murtha’s main issue has been the mismanagement of the war in Iraq. Ethics is a part of that. For instance, if you’re deploying troops but not giving them sufficient resources to do what you’re charging them with doing? That’s a matter of ethics. If you will the ends, you gotta will the means. The lines we’re willing to cross to get “good information” in interrogation? Decisions to insulate contractors from legal responsibility for doing a piss-poor job? Working out whether military involvement is in the best interests of the Iraqi people or the American people? All of this is terrain where you’d better have some ethics to guide you.

But maybe Murtha’s concern is that policing the ethics of elected representatives — whether they go on paid golf junkets with lobbyists or get to stock their freezers with foil-wrapped wads of free money — is a distraction from the “real issues” like the war. Verily, it is. But surely the easiest way to avoid that kind of distraction is for elected representatives to stop using elective office as a way to enrich themselves or the powerful people who elected them and just do their damn jobs. If ethics were taken seriously in the Congressional culture, representatives might spend less time on the take because they would expect that their colleagues would take them out for behaving badly.

Then, everyone’s attention could stay focused on the real issues.

So, to recap: Ethics is not a separate issue. Ethics is about the way you deal with issues.


  1. #1 coturnix
    November 16, 2006

    I think he thinks that ‘ethics’ equates digging the dirt, inverstigating the past, and preparing for the impeachment. This is something that will come naturally later on, once sunshine is allowed into all of Congress’ activities – the current and future activities. He seems to be in favor of transparency, which is another way of making sure that everything is done ethically.

  2. #2 zed
    November 16, 2006

    Wow, they are as incoherent when transcribed as they were when I changed the channel on these guys last night.

  3. #3 dogscratcher
    November 16, 2006

    Well said.

  4. #4 Helen
    November 16, 2006

    Good heavens. I’m staggered that anyone could think our current state of crisis is NOT about ethics in government. Wow.

  5. #5 David Harmon
    November 16, 2006

    Ethics is not a diversion from “real issues”. Ethics is all about the way you handle the issues.

    (r)Amen! Poor ethics is how we got into all the other messes, and it’s what’s keeping us from getting out of them!