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Wright Should Resign

Twelve years ago, as the U.S. House of Representatives debated a sweeping code-of-conduct resolution for itself, Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. argued forcefully against an amendment that would have deleted a strict limit on members’ outside income. To leave out such an important provision, he argued, even if all such income were disclosed publicly, “creates in the public mind a suspicion of conflict, a suspicion of impropriety . . . The issue is credibility, restoring public confidence in this Congress.”

Credibility . . . Public confidence . . . To rise above any suspicion of conflict or impropriety. That was the issue in 1977 in the wake of a flurry of congressional ethics cases. And that is the issue today, as House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) stands accused by the House Ethics Committee of 69 violations of the rules, including an alleged “scheme to evade” the limits on outside earnings.

To be sure, Wright has only been accused. He has not been convicted of anything. But that is not the point. The point is that as a leader of the House, Wright has failed the test set by Tip O’Neill and the rest of that body when it set certain standards of ethical conduct for its members.

By failing that test, Wright has broken the bond of trust and confidence he needs to continue as an effective officer of the House. For the good of the House of Representatives, for the good of the Democratic Party and for the good of the nation, Wright should resign his speakership now.

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In defending himself against the allegations the other day, Wright declared that, in his mind, he did not violate any rules or any commonly accepted standards of ethical conduct. He further claimed that he was the victim of changing rules and standards. Financial dealings undertaken in good faith in past years now are being judged differently, as through a rear-view mirror, the Speaker said. But there is nothing new about the rules Wright is accused of violating: They go back at least a dozen years. And these are not old charges dredged up from the past, but involve alleged violations as recent as last year.

These are not idle charges. If they were, 12 members of the Ethics Committee--six Democrats and six Republicans--would not have voted unanimously to issue its report finding reason to believe Wright violated the rules. That is an unprecedented action that would trigger an extraordinary cycle of events similar to the impeachment of a President.

It is not enough for Wright, or any Speaker, to merely adhere to the law by the narrowest of technicalities. The Speaker and others entrusted with special leadership positions must scrupulously avoid any appearance of conflict of interest or questionable financial dealings. Wright violated this standard and because of that, his Speakership is crippled.

Most important to him, Wright said, is to defend his personal reputation and personal honor. He will have ample opportunity to do that in the days to come. But only by resigning the speakership can he conduct that battle without paralyzing the work of Congress for weeks and months to come.

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