House Ethics: An Isolating Gavel to Hold
Come January, Rep. K. Michael Conaway won’t have to worry about scaring away his friends on Capitol Hill.
The Texas Republican, who served as chairman of the House Ethics Committee during the 113th Congress, exits the thorny position next month to take the top spot on the Agriculture Committee, a post well-suited to the interests of his cotton-farming constituents in the savannas of the Concho Valley, plus the booming agribusiness industry in San Angelo.
Early on in Conaway’s 20-month quest to grab the Agriculture gavel, the five-term congressman realized just how isolating his Ethics gig could be. After his chief of staff scheduled a series of meetings with members of the steering committee, one of the men on the influential panel — who Conaway said, “I’m kind of waving acquaintances with,” — approached him on the House floor. The unidentified member kicked off their first conversation with a cautious, “So, uh, you need to talk to me?”
“Yes, I do,” Conaway said he responded. “I need you to put your steering committee hat on …”
“As soon as I said that,” he recalled, “this wave of relief came over his face and he goes, ‘So, it’s not about ethics?’”
From that point on, the former accountant instructed his staff to be “very circumspect” about meeting requests and to clarify when the topic “has absolutely nothing to do with ethics.” The 66-year-old ordained Baptist deacon didn’t want to cause his colleagues any undue anxiety as he tried to grease the skids for his bid to replace term-limited Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma.
“They tease you about it, but he really thought it was something going on,” Conaway said during an interview in his stately Rayburn office. “I didn’t want anybody having that kind of anxiety.”
A cabinet behind his desk displays football helmets from Angelo State University and East Texas State University, where he won a scholarship to play the sport. Hanging from his coat rack is a third helmet from Odessa Permian High School, where he played defensive end and offensive tackle on the 1965 state championship football team that inspired “Friday Night Lights.”
Football played an integral role in his upbringing in West Texas, and Conaway can rattle off lessons about teamwork, determination — “You may get thumped pretty hard, but it can’t make you quit.” — and conditioning that he learned from playing. Conaway credits his influential Permian coach, Gene Mayfield, with preparing him for a successful career.
In college, a fluke steered Conaway toward an accounting degree after pursuing a pre-law program. He joined Price Waterhouse, but was soon drafted into the Army. His wife became pregnant with the couple’s first child while he was serving as a military police officer at Fort Hood. Conaway later returned to the company, where he did auditing and tax work for George W. Bush.
The two Republicans forged a friendship and went into the oil business together in the 1980s, eventually selling out to a Dallas company. “I’d have made more money if I’d have split partners with him in the baseball team, but we had a great experience, learned a lot,” Conaway joked of his five years as chief financial officer.
Bush was in the White House in 2004 when Conaway won a seat in Congress. He traveled to Iraq as a member of the Armed Services Committee and was invited to share his perspective with the president and Cabinet. Seated at a table full of dignitaries in the Roosevelt Room, the freshman congressman was taken aback when Bush asked him to recall the name of a former football teammate who had an Ozzy Osbourne-like pregame ritual involving poultry.
“In front of all these folks, the president of the United States just asked me a question about a fellow who bites the heads off live chickens,” Conaway said, chuckling. “The vice president’s kind of just looking down the table at me. … So, yeah, that was my, uh — the president caused me to relax right off the bat.”
During Bush’s governorship, he appointed Conaway to the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy, an agency responsible for policing certified public accountants. Seven years on the board gave Conaway a background in “sitting in judgment of peers” that he parlayed into his six years on the Ethics Committee.
Conaway’s appointment to the secretive, bipartisan panel “came about in odd circumstance.” Perhaps the post was retribution for seeking a spot on the Ways and Means Committee, despite then-House Majority Leader John A. Boehner’s warning that he would not place three Texans on the panel. Conaway ignored Boehner’s “semi-gruff” rejection in 2006, and spent two years trying to put together the necessary credentials.
“Mike, what part of not having three Texans did you not understand?” Boehner admonished him two years later, according to Conaway, who then “tucked my tail behind my leg and wandered off into the sunset.” That was November. In December, he got a call from Boehner, saying he needed Conaway to serve on the Ethics Committee.
“Standard joke is nobody wants it, it’s terrible stuff — and it is hard stuff,” Conaway acknowledged.
Under his leadership, the panel has received 17 referrals for further review from the Office of Congressional Ethics, regarding Democrats and members of his own party, including GOP Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. In that case and 10 others, the committee did not launch a formal investigation. The panel instead announced it would continue fact-finding pursuant to Rule 18A, putting the probe in limbo with no requirement that any result be made public. Under this clause, five members are leaving Congress with open ethics reviews.
Conaway said he has thoroughly enjoyed working with ranking member Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif., and said they have been “totally nonpartisan.” Sánchez, recently recognized for her bipartisan approach, became the top Democrat on the committee in 2011. When the committee drew fire this summer for a change to financial disclosure forms regarding privately funded trips, the pair reversed the change. At the time, Conaway said it was “a wrong decision and we’re going to fix it.”
Conaway told CQ Roll Call he’s had a “wonderful” run on the panel, but is now ready to move on to Agriculture. “Being in the Ethics Committee is really important work,” he said. “Nobody necessarily seeks it out, but it’s important for the House and her reputation and standing within the country, because this is a worthy institution.”