Ethics Committee sitting on alleged misconduct report due to COVID-19

Coronavirus delaying House Ethics Committee action

House Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. (CQ Roll Call)
House Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. (CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 12, 2020 at 10:26am

The House Ethics Committee is unable to physically vote because of the coronavirus pandemic, an impediment that is restricting action on alleged lawmaker misconduct. 

Until its members can physically reconvene to vote, the Ethics panel cannot issue a subpoena, empanel an investigative subcommittee nor discipline members for conduct unbecoming of the chamber. These actions all require an affirmative vote of the majority of the committee members.

For instance, a matter that was investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics and referred to the House Ethics Committee was supposed to be addressed by Monday in one of two ways. Either the completed OCE report would be publicly released or the Ethics Committee would announce that it voted to empanel an investigative subcommittee. Neither happened because of the pandemic. There is one other outstanding referral from OCE that was scheduled to be released July 31, unless the Ethics panel chooses to investigate.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has not been physically possible for the Ethics Committee to vote on referrals from the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE),” a House Ethics Committee spokesperson said in a statement provided to CQ Roll Call. “Out of fairness to investigative subjects, and in keeping with the spirit of House and Committee Rules, and after consultation with OCE, the Chairman and Ranking Member decided to postpone the deadlines related to OCE referrals until it is physically possible for the Committee to consider the referrals.”

There are some actions the Ethics panel can take without having to physically vote. This includes making public statements, extending financial disclosure reporting requirements and issuing advisory opinions that don’t adopt a new policy. The committee can still open investigations, have staff investigate, close investigations, answer advisory questions, review financial disclosures and interview witnesses, among other duties.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said last week he doesn’t think voting should be done remotely, noting that members should be physically present in committee markups. He added that Ethics Committee work should be done in person and not use technology, like Zoom, because the material is so sensitive and open to cybersecurity breaches. 

“I do not believe an ethics committee or an intel committee should be using anything like that. I think we’re too vulnerable,” the California Republican said. 

Some Democrats have pushed to change House rules to accommodate proxy voting, but to no avail.