Washington Babylon — March 1, 2010, 10:10 am

Defining Deviancy Down

Over the past month or so, the Supreme Court, Congress, and government agencies have taken a number of steps that, collectively, “define deviancy down” (in the words of one Washington observer) by lowering ethical standards to the point where they are either meaningless or unenforceable.

The Citizens United case has already been widely discussed here and elsewhere. In it, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects buying access to elected officials. “Ingratiation and access are not corruption,” the Court said.

Then the House Ethics Committee ruled that members of Congress can statutorily direct government agencies to give federal money to their campaign contributors in the form of earmarks as long as they can provide a legitimate reason for spending the money. That standard is useless — every earmark request can be rationalized by the member of Congress who gets it as being for a company in his or her district, and that it will create jobs.

Meanwhile, Congressman Charles Rangel is getting his wrist slapped for taking two corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean. “Speaker Pelosi’s pledge to ‘drain the swamp’ has to be regarded as an abject failure,” said my source, who asked to speak off the record. “If she really wanted to drain the swamp she could force Charlie Rangel to step down as chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee (he clearly lied under oath to House Ethics Committee investigators) and change the Rules of the House of Representatives to prevent members from accepting campaign contributions from entities to whom they earmark funds.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission last week released a notice of proposed rule-making that would essentially gut the existing tough ethical standards and replace them with significantly less rigorous ones.

The bureaucratic language makes it hard to understand the significance, but, basically, the existing regulations strictly prohibit FEC commissioners from creating the appearance of giving unfavorable treatment to any person or organization for partisan or political reasons. That standard would be significantly weakened under the new proposed rule.

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More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

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How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

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A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

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