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San Diego Politicians Comment on Ethics in DC

Few towns have endured as much political scandal in the past few years as San Diego. "Stripper gate" prompted the convictions of former councilmembers Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza. And then ther

San Diego Politicians Comment on Ethics in DC

Few towns have endured as much political scandal in the past few years as San Diego. "Stripper gate" prompted the convictions of former councilmembers  Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza. And then there was the bribery conviction of former Congressman Randy "  Duke" Cunningham.  Ethics is now at the top of the agenda in another city: Washington, DC. Chad Pergram examines the allure of power in Washington and what makes politicians go wrong.

There's little surprise many outside of Washington believe the city is a noxious place.  - Kind of like in Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi takes young Luke Skywalker to the depraved, Desert city, of Mos Eisley.

There's a unique climate in Washington.

Issa: In the 110th Congress, it's going to be a little bit like the day after an airplane crash.

Republican Vista Representative, Darrell Issa.

Issa: Pilot safety, air traffic safety -- everything is at the highest alert. So the new Members are going to come in very aware that they need to run the straight and narrow.

A recent Wall Street Journal poll pegged the country's approval rating of Congress at 16 percent. GOP California Representative Brian Bilbray succeeded Duke Cunningham in office. He thinks people are unfairly tarring Washington.

Bilbray: It's always sort of intellectually lazy just to wrap everybody up. I'm a practicing Catholic. When I take communion from a priest, I'm not thinking that the Priest is a pedophile.

But Bilbray thinks Washington is a fundamentally different place than San Diego. He says there are particular trappings here, and specifically on the East Coast that tempt and change lawmakers.

Bilbray: I mean Chicago, New York, Philadelphia -- the big cities on the east coast operate under a whole different set of rules that in California you'd go to prison for.

But Darrell Issa disagrees with Bilbray's bi-coastal ethics axiom.

Issa: Sacramento has historically been a pay to play. It has been a terrible place from an ethics standpoint. They have tried to reform it a couple of times. But very clearly, centers of power attract money. And ultimately, attract money trying to corrupt the process.

American University political scientist James Thurber says Washington brews an intoxicating elixor that entices many lawmakers -- power, popularity and influence.

Thurber: Culturally in Washington, DC, once you're elected to become a member of the House, all of a sudden you're a very special person. You're on a stage where everyone wants to talk to you. That is the beginning of the seduction. The "middle" of it is actually (at) at the base of Capitol Hill. There you'll find a number of high-end restaurants like Capital Grille, Charlie Palmer Steak. And this one: Johnny's Half-Shell.

During many lunch and dinner hours, they could all double as a Congressional mess halls, where lobbyists, lawmakers and aides congregate to talk shop.

Jeff Dufour writes about the confluence of politics and culture in the city, for the Washington Examiner.

Dufour: It's all about location. It's a built-in audience. It's only a few steps down the hill. And a lot of them truthfully -- the food isn't even that good.

Dufour believes Washington is a culture shock to most new Members of Congress.

Dufour: For a lot of members, this is the first time they've come to a big city. And they've got certain things like cuisine and elevated culture. And you might be in a vast district that is very rural, and all of a sudden you're in a big city with all of these temptations and the ability to live the good life, with a little bit of power and money behind it.

Dufour says it's natural for lawmakers to gravitate to places like this. Especially when they're away from home.

Dufour: The other choice is to have dinner in the Longworth Cafeteria --one of the House cafeterias. And it doesn't have the same glamour as it is here.

Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein says that's tempting. But...

Feinstein: Some people get overcome by a sense of power that is really non-exisitent.

Democratic San Diego Congresswoman Susan Davis says there's nothing inherently wrong with dining at one of Washington's swank establishments. It all comes down to your personal morals. How you were raised.

Davis: I don't feel that there is anything in the water here that changes that. I think people at their core, are who they are.

Feinstein believes Congress is on the right track by crafting new, 'crisp, clear" ethics rules. And she has advice for the gigantic freshman class on Capitol Hill.

Feinstein: Just figure that John. Q. Public is looking over your shoulder at all times. And everything you do is subject to wide, public circumspection. So you'd better come with the view that you're going to be very careful in everything that you do.

Darrell Issa also issued a warning for lobbyists.

Issa: Those who play by the reasonable rules, of let's have a cup of coffee. Let me talk about it. Can I please come to your office and we can talk about our issues, will continue to do well. And those who continue to push the envelope to those new limits periodically have to be reminded that it's not in the best interest of the American people.

Democratic leaders claim they run the most honest and open Congress in history. They're placing a moratorium on controversial, targeted spending provisions, known as earmarks. And they're promising enhanced oversight of Congressional conduct.

But perception is reality.  And Democrats face a real challenge to scrub Washington's image of -- as Obi-Wan Kenobi said -- a wretched hive of scum and villainy. 

From Capitol Hill, Chad Pergram,  KPBS News.