Arthur Miller penned “The Crucible” in 1953 as a criticism of the House Un-American Activities Committee — the communist witch hunt. With a new screen version of the play in theaters, the allegory might apply just as well to a contemporary phenomenon — ethics investigations. In the film, the jealous Abigail Williams sent her rivals to the gallows simply by the act of accusation. The recent spate of ethics hearings has generated complaints that politicians are using the same tactics today. Whether in old Salem or on Capitol Hill, real damage is done by finger-pointing.
This week, Newt Gingrich battled to retain his seat as Speaker of the House amid charges of ethics violations. A House ethics committee has spent two years investigating Gingrich, who was accused of violating tax rules by improperly funding a college course he taught. As Gingrich’s standing in the House was threatened, Republican national chairman Haley Barbour fired counter-charges at the Democrats, accusing them of perverting the ethics process in an attempt to thwart and discredit Gingrich. The charge is an ironic one, as Gingrich himself is widely acknowledged to have pioneered the use of ethics investigations as a tool to take down partisan opponents. It was Gingrich who led the Republican assault on Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, who resigned from the house in 1989 after being accused of 69 violations of House rules.
Both Gingrich’s tactics and Barbour’s claims raise an interesting point — when is an ethics investigation a partisan tool, and when does it serve the public? The Whitewater investigation of the president and Hillary Clinton is an example of how murky this question can be. While Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater investigator, is independent counsel, he too has been accused of partisanship. The investigation of a possibly shady real estate deal that took place in 1978, 14 years before Clinton was elected president, has cost the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. But after four years, neither the president nor Hillary Clinton has been indicted. Meanwhile, the lengthy investigation is undeniably leeching the president’s time and energy, which arguably might be better spent on the business at hand — setting policy and running the country.
Clearly, the benefit of ethics investigations is related to the nature of the charges. Charges that involve misuse of public office must be taken seriously. Certainly, the firing of White House travel office employees and the alleged misuse of FBI files, two other problems that have plagued the Clinton administration, should be investigated. But any investigation should be carried out within a reasonable time frame. When fruitless investigations are allowed to continue indefinitely, they become more a muckraking tactic than a measure of accountability.
Wielding ethics accusations has become a matter of course on both sides of the aisle. But if there’s an applicable moral in “The Crucible,” it’s that selfishly motivated finger-pointing begets a downward spiral. Using investigation as a partisan tool serves only to spark a potentially endless cycle of retaliation in which reputations may be senselessly damaged and the democratic process impeded.