These are the moments that make you shake your head and wonder if common sense evaporates upon election to Congress.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is the No. 2 Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, which will investigate the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He is also the owner of 3,604 shares of British Petroleum stock, which was worth a quarter-million dollars before the April 20 calamity and less than half that amount now.
Yet, despite what is a glaring conflict of interest, Sensenbrenner says he will not recuse himself from the investigation. If Sensenbrenner really can't see the problem he is creating for everyone concerned, then his colleagues need to knock some sense into him.
Unfortunately, that is what it will take, because House rules inexplicably do not require a member in Sensenbrenner's position to bow out of an investigation or refrain from voting. A spokesman said Sensenbrenner "always votes from what he believes is in the country's best interest, regardless of his financial interests," but even if that is true, it misses the point. Even the appearance of conflict can damage an investigation.
For example, Sensenbrenner recently has criticized President Obama for threatening criminal action against BP. Is that because he wants to limit damage to the company and, thus, hopes to protect his investment from even worse losses?
Maybe not; he may just think it's a bad idea. But he wouldn't be the first elected official who, purposely or not, found himself unable to separate the nation's interests from his own. Why should his constituents, or any other American concerned about this environmental catastrophe, have to worry about how he might try to influence the investigation?
Two things need to happen now. First is that through epiphany or arm-twisting, Sensenbrenner needs to back out of any involvement in Congress' BP investigation. It's the right thing to do. He needs to be made to grasp that obvious fact.
Second is that Congress needs to revisit its rules regarding conflicts of interest. Sensenbrenner's refusal, thus far, demonstrates that Congress cannot count on the good sense of its members to do the right thing when their financial interests and public duties collide. The Sensenbrenners out there need to be saved from themselves. The public needs to be saved from them, too.