It is hard to persuade Members of Congress to take ethics seriously.
In the House of Representatives, the Ethics Committee is so dysfunctional it was forced to hire an outside counsel to investigate itself. Meanwhile, the Senate Ethics Committee recently woke from its long hibernation to issue a blistering report on the criminal conduct of Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) — almost two years after the initial complaint was filed against him and after Ensign had already resigned.
Such is the lay of the land in Washington today, and no one seems eager to do anything about it. In fact, some Members are attempting to make it easier to operate with impunity.
Just last week, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) introduced legislation to cut the budget of the Office of Congressional Ethics by 40 percent. Thankfully, an overwhelming bipartisan majority killed this misguided amendment.
Established in 2008, the OCE is an independent, nonpartisan entity that has a simple charge: keep the House of Representatives honest.
Republicans vehemently fought against its creation, yet it has been a significant cadre of Democrats who have tried to gut it. Watt was actually a target of an OCE investigation in 2010. Although he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, apparently he is still smarting from the inquiry.
Last Congress, Rep. Marcia Fudge sponsored legislation that would similarly have eviscerated the OCE; the Ohio Democrat’s chief of staff and several other Members of Congress found themselves in the OCE’s sights after taking an all-expenses-paid trip to the Caribbean.
The OCE unfortunately has no jurisdiction over the Senate, where Members are expected to police themselves but frequently choose not to.
Former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was praised by his colleagues, even after he was indicted on charges of lying on his financial disclosure forms (a criminal conviction was subsequently overturned). Former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was allowed to serve out his term. Former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) got a slap on the wrist for trying to coerce a prosecutor to bring a criminal case for political purposes. And Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) role in a prostitution scandal was overlooked because he had been a Member of the House at the time of his alleged crimes.
Law enforcement isn’t offering much help either. Still gun-shy from the botched prosecution of Stevens, the Department of Justice’s once-vaunted Public Integrity Section refuses to prosecute no matter how egregious the conduct.
A prime example: Although the DOJ declined to prosecute Ensign, the special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee issued a report concluding the Senator had violated numerous criminal laws. The department also punted on cases involving the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, among others.
The Federal Election Commission has an even worse track record. The three Republican commissioners have held the commission hostage, voting in lockstep against any enforcement action. Commissioner Don McGahn openly brags about “not enforcing the law,” and five out of the six commissioners are serving on expired terms. As a result, crooked politicians from both parties can now violate campaign finance laws at will.
There are numerous instances where the FEC’s general counsel found reason to believe the law had been violated, and the Republican commissioners ignored the law and refused to act. If this sounds like a joke, it’s because it is, and Stephen Colbert has been riding it to ratings gold on a regular basis.
This might paint a bleak picture about modern Washington. Yet, with any luck, the tide can be turned: The DOJ could take a tougher line against corruption, President Barack Obama could fix the FEC by replacing the squatting commissioners, and the OCE could be properly funded, be given subpoena power and have its jurisdiction extended to the Senate.
Politicians who understand they will be held accountable for their conduct are more likely to meet the high ethical standards we have a right to expect from our elected officials.
Melanie Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.