On Jan. 30, 1798, Reps. Matthew Lyon (Vt.) and Roger Griswold (Conn.) exchanged robust words during a House floor debate.
The argument escalated and Lyon punctuated his argument by spitting on Griswold. Two days later he sent a letter apologizing for his egregious expectoration.
DNA forensics wouldn’t be invented for another 200 years, but the Committee on Privileges had all the evidence it needed to recommend Lyon’s expulsion from the House for “disorderly behavior.”
A week later, Lyon picked up an additional “gross indecency of language” charge while defending himself in the original sputum incident.
Despite all this indecorous behavior, Lyon survived the saga after an effort to censure him failed 44-52. The 52-44 vote to expel Lyon from the House also failed because it did not reach the two-thirds threshold.
This was the first recorded instance of the House attempting to discipline one of its own.
To be fair and balanced, it should be noted that the congressional spitee, Mr. Griswold, also had the meter running on his patience and picked up his own “disorderly behavior” charge a week later when he assaulted Lyon with a “stout cane” on the House floor before the day’s session began.
Although there is something commendable about Griswold performing this act of vengeance on his own time, Lyon predictably responded by counterattacking with some conveniently available fireplace tongs. You guessed it: another “disorderly” for Lyon.
Surprisingly, the feud ended not in a duel but with an anticlimactic pledge by both members to keep the peace.
Still, they initiated a 200-year trail of congressional offenses, from deadly dueling, bribery, physically attacking a senator in the Senate chamber, defamation, rebellion, selling appointments to military academies, retaining an employee for immoral purposes, having sexual relations with pages, and inserting obscene material into The Congressional Record.
The list can be found on the House ethics committee website.
The Lyon-Griswold tale is the juicy opener in the new Ethics Manual published by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and distributed to Capitol Hill offices a few weeks ago.
A fire-red, 444-page, 8 1⁄2-by-11-inch paperback as thick as the Cleveland telephone directory, the manual presents detailed sections on general ethical standards, gifts, travel, campaigns, outside employment and income, financial disclosure, meals, political conventions and much more.
The first complete revision of the House ethics manual since 1992, it briefly outlines how the House historically has dealt (or not) with ethics problems, then morphs into a training manual about everything members and staff need to know to avoid becoming roommates with Jim Traficant, Duke Cunningham or Bob Ney.
There are so many rules, it’s hard to figure how someone could learn them all, let alone comply with them, and still find the time to represent his or her district. I am sure they are logical, but I wonder if, in our effort to hold folks accountable, we might be taking bright, motivated, public service-minded individuals and transforming them into dispirited cynics.
There will always be a small, crooked element of Congress, just as there is a small, crooked element of any other profession in America. Let’s call this the Nasty 1 Percent.
Unless I’m misremembering, or my math is off, three former members out of 535 serving time is closer to one-half of 1 percent.
The reality is that folks bent on scamming the system won’t be bound by an ethics manual of four, 444 or even 4,444 pages.
So, the other 99 percent of hardworking, “do-it-for-the-right-reason” members are screwed because we’ve tied them in knots like pretzels on parade.
I am not suggesting that members or staffers shouldn’t have written standards and rules. But if I were a public service-minded young soul just out of college and someone gave me this manual as a Christmas stocking-stuffer, I’d be looking for a safer line of work, like skyscraper window-washing or race-car driving.
If we are truly worried about a member trading a floor vote for a hamburger and fries, or a staffer rewriting the tax code because a lobbyist friend gave him a set of candles as a wedding gift, then we have already lost the war and it’s too late for manuals and seminars.
That said, I did find on page 355 a code of ethics for government service that was passed as a resolution in 1958. Clip it. Laminate it. Stick it on the refrigerator. Follow it and I promise you won’t be seeing Traficant, Cunningham or Ney anytime soon.
CODE OF ETHICS FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICE
Any person in government service should:
1. Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to government persons, party or department.
2. Uphold the Constitution, laws, and legal regulations of the United States and of all governments therein and never be a party to their evasion.
3. Give a full day’s labor for a full day’s pay, giving to the performance of his duties his earnest effort and best thought.
4. Seek to find and employ more efficient and economical ways of getting tasks accomplished.
5. Never discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone, whether for remuneration or not; and never accept, for himself or his family, favors or benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of his governmental duties.
6. Make no private promises of any kind binding upon the duties of office, since a government employee has no private word which can be binding on public duty.
7. Engage in no business with the government, either directly or indirectly, which is inconsistent with the conscientious performance of his governmental duties.
8. Never use any information coming to him confidentially in the performance of governmental duties as a means for making private profit.
9. Expose corruption wherever discovered.
10. Uphold these principles, ever conscious that public office is a public trust.
Mills is a columnist for The Hill. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org