Open government advocates and congressional watchdogs, frustrated with what they decry as a culture of corruption on Capitol Hill, would like to see the House Ethics Committee take more aggressive action on cleaning up Congress.
But the panel's chairman, K. Michael Conaway of Texas, says it's not the Ethics Committee's job to bring forward a more ethical House.
“The members themselves bring forth an ethical House,” Conaway told CQ Roll Call in a recent hallway interview. “The committee itself is just trying to do two things: one, offer up advice to help folks stay inside the white lines, and then when somebody doesn’t, deal with that.”
The Ethics Committee has been in the spotlight again recently, flip-flopping — under pressure — on a disclosure rule for privately-funded travel that the bipartisan panel had quietly dropped.
Government accountability groups, such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Congress needs more disclosure, not less.
But Conaway, who earlier this month defended the attempt to loosen disclosure rules, said the committee is not "in and of itself” responsible for producing a higher ethical standard. “The members are responsible for how ethical the House is, and, quite frankly, how ethical the House is perceived to be by the general public.”
The Texas Republican, who is widely expected to trade his Ethics gavel for the Agriculture chairmanship next Congress, said the legacy of the Ethics Committee under his guidance would be, "that we did the work well, and, for the most part, stayed out of the headlines." He also mentioned clearing a backlog of cases the committee inherited and leaving the next committee members with a more manageable workload.
"And we treated the members as fairly as we could," he said.
But government watchdogs don't see it in such rosy terms.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, said Conaway's view is a "very sad perspective" for the chairman of the Ethics Committee, and is "very different" from what watchdogs and the American public think the role of the Ethics chairman should be.
"If the Ethics Committee was perceived as vigilant, members would be much more cautious about following the rules," Sloan said. "I think he’s limiting the role of the Ethics Committee because he doesn’t want to be responsible for the problem."
But changing that pervasive image — that Congress always has its hand in the cookie jar — is one reason the committee reinstated the travel disclosure requirement on the yearly disclosure form, Conaway said.
The information, as the Ethics Committee was eager to point out, was already available on the House clerk’s website. And, in the words of Conaway, “It was redundant. It’s now redundant again.”
For years — decades, really — government watchdogs have criticized the Ethics Committee for working harder to protect members than the rules of Congress.
After Democrats took control of the House in the 110th Congress, in response to ethics concerns such as the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Minority Leader John A. Boehner agreed to create a special task force on ethics enforcement. The task force was charged with determining whether the House should commission a special, outside ethics-enforcement group. In March 2008, the House created the Office of Congressional Ethics.
But again and again, the OCE has seen the cases it forwards to the Ethics Committee summarily dismissed — or stuffed in a drawer. Of the 46 cases the OCE has forwarded to the Ethics Committee, only two have led to any real action: one case was former Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, receiving about $500,000 in legal services that she had to pay back, and the other was a staffer not paying taxes on unreported income, which resulted in a $1,000 fine.
The case with Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., improperly accepting a trip to the Caribbean resulted in a public letter from the Ethics Committee. It said the letter was a form of punishment in itself.
When Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was found to be in serious violation of a number of House rules — using campaign funds for personal use, accepting improper gifts and failure to report gifts on his financial disclosure statement — the Ethics Committee issued just about its strongest form of condemnation: a letter of reproval.
In the words of Sloan, the committee “did nothing other than issue a letter saying, in effect, ‘Bad congressman.’"
"Not exactly the sort of strong action that will send shivers down the spines of corrupt lawmakers anywhere," she said in a release.
Sloan also told CQ Roll Call that she took issue with the fact the Ethics Committee treats the testimony of lawmakers as "gospel."
She brought up a case in which the panel found no credible evidence that Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y., had committed any wrongdoing surrounding two loans he received from a friend. Despite not declaring the loans on his financial disclosure statements for three years, and not having any documentation showing his friend had loaned him the money, Meeks was cleared by simply telling the committee he lost the documents.
"'We’ll just believe him,'" Sloan said, giving her best impression of the attitude of the Ethics Committee.
In addition to its casework, the committee's handling of restrictions is also eyebrow-raising, particularly the ones enacted in the 110th Congress.
According to Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, the new restrictions worked for a while to create a more ethical House. But, Holman said, “the Ethics Committee keeps trying to whittle away at these rules.”
Holman didn’t see the elimination of the travel logs on the annual financial disclosure form as the harmless purging of a duplicative reporting requirement. “This reflects a long-term trend that we’ve seen on the Ethics Committee to essentially pull the rug out on ethics rules,” he said.
Holman mentioned the danger in the rationale — that you can remove annual disclosures because they already exist elsewhere. For instance, though stock trades are reported in other filings, they also appear on the annual disclosure form. Holman worried the Ethics Committee might use the same reasoning it used to eliminate the travel disclosure to eliminate the stock reporting requirement.
“If you use that rationale, you’re just going to tear it apart,” Holman said of the annual disclosure form.
But Holman took greater issue with other Ethics Committee interpretations.
For one, Holman sees problems with who is allowed to sponsor travel. The rules don’t allow lobbyists to pay for trips longer than a day, but that doesn’t mean a lobbying group couldn’t set up a 501(c)(3) — a tax-exempt, charitable organization — that could pay for member travel. Holman testified before the Ethics Committee when it was considering whether to allow 501(c)(3) groups associated with lobbying entities to pay for travel, and he strongly disagrees with the panel’s decision.
“It’s a huge, gaping loophole,” Holman said.
Larger than any particular line item, however, Holman pointed to a mentality problem at House Ethics — a legacy "that the institution of the Ethics Committee is a long-term, anti-ethics entity.”
“The House Ethics Committee is the entity that should be enforcing and strengthening ethics rules," Holman said. "But they do the exact opposite."
Still, Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who pushed for the creation of an independent ethics office for more than 30 years, said the OCE has had "a very substantial impact" on the Ethics Committee.
"We always knew that the culture of the Ethics Committee was going to make it a difficult battle to get them to turn around and be more assertive on many of these cases," Ornstein said. But he thinks the independent office has put the Ethics Committee "a bit more on the defensive."
The committee, created in the 1960s, has never been eager to go after members.
After the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, however, ethics became more of a political football, where accusations were often leaked and used as re-election bludgeons. That led to a ceasefire in 1997, after a special task force developed a number of recommendations to improve the Ethics Committee, chief among them a requirement that ethics charges be brought forward by a member of Congress.
"That was basically mutually assured destruction," Ornstein said.
That period of peace, when members were seldom the subject of an Ethics investigation, lasted until Democrats took control of the House after 2006 elections. Soon after, the House created its task force to determine if an independent office was needed.
According to Sloan, Conaway's attitude — that members are responsible for policing themselves — is exactly the logic that led to the creation of the OCE.
Indeed, Ornstein said no institution does a great job of policing its own without some independent force providing a check or balance.
But with the creation of the OCE, Ornstein said, ethics in the House have taken a step forward — even if the Ethics Committee itself is slow to change.
"It’s not that you’re getting bad members," Ornstein said of the Ethics panel's makeup, "it’s that you’re going into a culture that’s a really tough culture."