Ethics Committees Contribute to Congress’ Low Public Esteem
It took two years and four months for the House ethics committee to process charges that led last week to the censure of Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) — the capstone of a miserably weak performance in the 111th Congress.
Meantime, the Senate Ethics Committee, having merely admonished former Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) for offering to do fundraising to get his Senate seat — then lying about it multiple times — now has before it the case of Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who allegedly helped a former aide set up a lobbying business after it was discovered he was having an affair with the aide’s wife.
The Justice Department has declined to prosecute Ensign, but it’s clear that Congress has an obligation to police the ethics of its Members by standards different from those required for the Justice Department to prosecute a criminal case.
As the Congressional Research Service pointed out in a report this summer, “the underlying justification for legislative discipline has traditionally been to protect the integrity and dignity of the legislative institution and its proceedings, rather than merely to punish an individual.”
By that standard, both the House and Senate ethics committees rate failing grades.
Rangel is actually the only Member to have been subjected to even moderately serious punishment during this Congress. Being forced to stand in the well of the House while a resolution of censure is read may be humiliating, it does not cost the Member money, benefits, seniority or his seat.
Rangel and his defenders claim that even censure was too harsh a punishment because the ethics committee found no evidence that he “enriched” himself. But the fact is, he was convicted of evading taxes for 17 years on returns from property he owned in the Dominican Republic.
Rangel was forced to step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, but this was done — for political reasons — by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), not the ethics process.
In another case, Rangel was “admonished” because his staff knew that corporations were paying for two trips to Caribbean resorts in violation of the House gift ban — but five other Members were exonerated, even though lobbyists for the corporations were present on the trips.
Moreover, the House ethics panel cleared seven Members who received millions in campaign cash from clients of a lobbying firm, the PMA Group, while steering tens of millions of dollars in government contracts to the clients.
Those cases and others were referred to the committee by the new Office of Congressional Ethics, which members of the ethics committee have sought to discredit.
The November elections constituted a massive repudiation of the way Congress does its work. Ethics was not the centerpiece of the public’s verdict, but it surely played a part. We hope the new House Republican majority will keep the OCE — which takes ethics seriously — and that both parties in both chambers will appoint ethics committee members who do the same.
Serving on ethics committees is widely deemed a “thankless job,” but someday we’d like to be able to thank those who do serve because they’ve really changed Congress’ tawdry image.