Congress faces a terrible moral dilemma as it convenes. A senior congressman has been indicted, and then convicted in federal court. The judge sentences him to two years in prison, and the congressman appeals his case. While on appeal, he wins reelection by an overwhelming margin.
A current event?
No. The particular case is four-decades old.The congressman is John Langley of Kentucky who was convicted for conspiracy in 1924.
But the dilemma is still the same. Does the Congress have a right to set higher standards for its membership than the voters of a particular district? When Langley returned to Congress, a special committee said in effect: Yes. The House could not permit in its membership a person convicted of a crime.
But this posed a second dilemma. Langley was now a convicted felon. He no longer was presumed innocent, but he wasn't yet actually in prison. What privileges should a convicted felon out on appeal have?
Even four decades later I can almost hear the committee offer a thankful sigh of relief. Representative Langley answered the question for them.
Fortunately, Langley had a spark of honor and a sense of what was best for the nation. He decided not to participate in the House while the appeal was going on. So no bill became law because of that convicted felon's vote.
But let's turn to today's headlines.The case of senior Congressman Charles Diggs (D-Mich.) is so similar it's eery. He has been indicted, convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.
While on appeal he was reelected.
And now the question is -- does Charles Diggs have the same sense of honor that John Langley had?
Frankly, I don't think we can tolerate the idea of a convicted felon making law. No doubt there will be some close votes this session. I can imagine Charles Diggs being the deciding vote on a bill that passes 201 to 200.
How can a congressman then go back to the people and ask them to obey what obviously is a controversial law when it was passed by someone who flouts the law?
The legislative precedent and common sense both argue Charles Diggs should refrain from voting. So does an even larger principle.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams sometime after the nation's founding:
"This I hope will be the age of experiments in government, and that their basis will be founded on principles of honesty, not of mere force. We have seen no instance of this since the days of the Roman Republic, nor do we read of any before that. Either force or corruption has been the principle of every modern government."
There's something wrong if we allow the experiment Jefferson helped start sink back to a government based on corruption. And that something is a much greater wrong than the individual sins of one particular congressman.
The American people deserve laws made by those who respect the law -- not those who steal from them. And not those who tolerate such stealing.