Sunday, February 27, 2011

Scandal: German Style

Verteidigungsminister Guttenberg

The latest German political scandal involves Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. For the past few weeks, there have been calls for Mr. Guttenberg’s resignation after it was revealed he plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis and may have used government employees to assist him in writing it. This week Mr. Guttenberg tried to quell calls for his resignation by asking the University to withdraw his Doctor title, which they did immediately. Yet, calls for his resignation persist.

Although polls indicate that over 70% of Germans believe the issue is unimportant, the opposition continues to call for Mr. Guttenberg to go.  Mr. Guttenberg, a rising star in Germany's Conservative Party, was once considered a likely to successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. What makes Mr. Guttenberg's plight more interesting is his reputation for espousing high ethical standards. (Isn't this always the case? The guy who talks about moral decay is usually morally bankrupt.)

From an American point of view, this is a minor scandal. We're the country that produced Bill Clinton who said, under oath, that he "didn't have sex with that woman," Richard Nixon who stated unequivocally “I am not a crook," and more recently, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut who lied about his war record. The list goes on and on. There was New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (sex, prostitution), Vice-President Spiro Agnew (tax fraud), South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (sex, mistress), Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (fraud), and my favorite of all, Rep. Wilbur Mills (sex, Tidal Basin Stripper).

As Americans, we take it for granted that politicians will sidestep the truth and push the envelope of moral responsibility. It seems that politicians act and behave as if they're above the law and any ethical standards. Moreover, instead of doing the will of the people, they act to further their own personal goals, the goals of their political contributors, and the goals of their friends, family, and special interest groups. Power, especially political power, corrupts.

I have always thought that one way to curb political power is term limits. Those who argue against term limits say the voters can always vote the guy out office. In theory, that’s correct; but in practice, it’s rare for an incumbent to lose office. The deck is always stacked in their favor. The incumbent has the advantage of money, strong organizational support, and name recognition.

So why no term limits in the Constitution for Congressional Representatives? The issue was debated during the Constitutional Convention, but it wasn't considered a priority since no one could envision career politicians: the pay was low, the power of government minimal, and the job status unimportant. (My have things changed!) Although term limits have been discussed for decades, don't expect them anytime soon. Remember, it's the politicians who need to enact them.

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