Renzi Indictment Puts Shortcomings of Ethics Process on Display

Posted February 26, 2008 at 2:39pm

The far-reaching indictment of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) was stunning. This was no penny-ante corruption charge, but a double-barreled set of accusations on a near-Duke Cunningham scale. When I write “far-reaching indictment,” however, I mean a reach that goes beyond the serious charges against Renzi. This is an equaling compelling indictment against a Congressional ethics process that once again proves its utter impotence.

[IMGCAP(1)]Far too often, in both the House and Senate, we have seen the same story: Issues about a lawmaker are raised in public, amplified by investigative reporting or other revelations, followed a considerable time later by indications that the Justice Department is investigating, followed often by an indictment. During all that time, there is zero indication of any activity on the part of the ethics committee.

Before there is a formal investigation, Congress tries to avoid a hint of looking into a potential ethics violation to avoid offending a colleague. When there is a formal indication of a criminal investigation, the ethics nabobs indicate that they do not want to interfere with it; if and when there is an indictment, there is pressure on the indictee to resign (which of course leaves him out of the reach of the ethics committee and the process).

The fact is that criminal investigations and criminal charges are neither the prerequisite for ethics actions nor should they be excuses to avoid ethics actions; what is unethical is not necessarily criminal, although what is criminal is almost certainly unethical. The Renzi case, the case involving Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) that preceded it and the many other cases in both chambers, including a number of current ones, simply show the inability of Congress to police itself — and instead the relief at setting up an effective Catch-22 to provide an ongoing excuse to do not much of anything except when forced into it by public embarrassment.

When that happens, the result can be equally embarrassing. A good example was the farce surrounding Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), including the threat to use the ethics process as a weapon to force him to resign, not as an honest effort to create an appropriate punishment for an ethical violation, and not with any attempt to look at comparable cases of ethical violations by other Senators.

The Renzi case is important for another reason. It is a clear signal that the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department is continuing its tough and aggressive look at other lawmakers on corruption charges, with the strong likelihood that other indictments will follow this year. Some would say Congress’ approval can’t go any lower from its current low point. Wrong. A string of additional indictments would underscore the worst fears and prejudices that voters have about politicians. Maybe with some effort, Congress can get itself down to single digits.

All of this is prelude to the critical choice facing the House this week. At long last (and I mean long — some of us have been working for nearly 30 years to create a meaningful reform here) the House is going to take up a plan to create an independent office for preliminary ethics investigations. I described it in the following fashion when I first wrote about it in December:

“The panel would consist of six members jointly appointed by the Speaker and Minority Leader, with staggered four-year terms (a limit of two for any members.) It has reasonable standards and thresholds for the group to consider potential ethical violations, with reports sent to the ethics committee laying out the facts of the group’s investigation alongside the relevant rules and/or laws. There are reasonable time limits for the ethics committee to act on the report — and importantly, provisions that would eventually require release of the independent panel’s report to the public if the ethics committee simply sat on the report.

This panel would be able to move quickly to clear Members’ names if they are being attacked unfairly, just as it could move to make sure that serious questions raised about the conduct of a lawmaker would get real scrutiny with the credibility that comes from its independent status. It would act on its own, not accepting complaints from the outside (a provision decried by some, but not at all a problem — the key is having the right kinds of members for the panel, who would have the integrity and fortitude to act to protect the larger integrity of the institution and the political process.)”

This plan, the product of extended deliberation and compromise by a task force created by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and led by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), is not perfect — it lacks any subpoena power, which would be a huge plus to conduct credible and thorough investigations — but it is a real, solid and credible way to create a meaningful ethics process in the House.

If the House rejects it now — even as the Renzi case reminds all of us about the credibility problem of a Congress that has long operated under an “anything goes” climate — it would be a shameful sign of insensitivity and arrogance. The reform ought to be adopted by a wide margin, and be followed by a renewed effort to get a clueless and arrogant Senate to do the same thing.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.