With the worst Congressional scandal in decades unfolding, it's reasonable to assume that nobody's busier on Capitol Hill than the House Ethics Committee. Surprise: For all practical purposes, there is no House Ethics Committee--it's been defunct for the past year. "I've been in Congress nineteen years, and this is the first time I've ever known us to operate without an Ethics Committee in place," says Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee.
It hasn't always been this way--and for good reason. The responsibility for policing Congress falls on the Ethics Committee's shoulders. If it doesn't enforce the rules, no one else--short of the Justice Department--will. "There should be a higher standard for Congressmen than just avoiding indictment," says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Though it has never consistently held members to that higher standard, the committee has done important work. In 1989 the Ethics Committee forced the resignation of Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright after exposing his crooked book deal with the Teamsters Union. Three years later the committee found that 355 former and current members of Congress had written bad checks, prompting fifty-three to resign. In 1997 the committee slapped Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich with a $300,000 fine for misusing tax-exempt charities' funds and lying to investigators, sealing Gingrich's demise.
But after a perceived excess of frivolous complaints and partisan mudslinging in the wake of the Gingrich investigation, the House voted to circumscribe its ethics rules and prevent outside groups from filing complaints. (Those filings had often been crucial; Common Cause filed the complaint that launched the investigation of Wright.) An "ethics truce" persisted for the next seven years, broken only when outgoing freshman Representative Chris Bell had the audacity to file an official complaint against Representative Tom DeLay in June 2004. The Ethics Committee broke its slumber and handed DeLay three "admonishments"--official letters of rebuke that began the former majority leader's ethical and legal free fall.
The House Republican leadership responded by kicking the chairman and two other Republicans off the committee. New chairman Doc Hastings, a loyalist of GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert, then tried to install his chief of staff to lead the committee's investigations. At that point, last April, Democrats stopped attending meetings and effectively shut down the committee. Squabbling over staffing and investigative jurisdiction continued to paralyze the committee throughout 2005. The net effect: Not one Abramoff-implicated Congressman, including Bob Ney (aka "Representative #1" in the infamous Abramoff plea), has been investigated by the Ethics Committee.
Whether the Ethics Committee becomes operational in the New Year remains a $64,000 question. Hastings promised an inquiry into DeLay's lavish, lobbyist-funded travel but now says it won't happen. The committee has hired a new nonpartisan counsel to lead future investigations, but three or four investigators still need to be brought on board to get things moving again. Republicans say the problem is insufficient funds, although the committee spent only $265,000 of its $1.3 million budget in 2005. They also complain of depleted personnel, although that problem arose when Hastings fired the committee heads after the DeLay admonishments. Republicans also say the committee's work shouldn't overlap with Justice Department investigations, although that didn't stop Congressional ethics probes in the Keating Five, Koreagate and Abscam scandals.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders cry out for investigations--but only in their public statements. "The House Ethics Committee must get to work immediately to investigate ethics and corruption cases in the House, including those involving members with ties to Jack Abramoff," House minority leader Nancy Pelosi declared recently, naming DeLay, Ney, John Doolittle and Richard Pombo as deserving of inquiry. Yet according to Bell, Sloan and lawmakers who asked not to be named, Pelosi has specifically told House members not to file complaints. Pelosi, who said through a spokesperson that she has never been a party to any ethics truce, spent six years on the Ethics Committee during the turbulent Gingrich era ("serving my time," she jokingly calls it). Bell suspects that she's worried about retaliatory complaints being filed against Democrats. "There are some members who want to act, and when they bring it up with the leadership they're told to wait a while," says Bell. Congress, he says, "is a self-preservation institution. Members realize that if they rock the boat they endanger their self-preservation. And you can't file an ethics complaint without rocking the boat."
Bell knows. After taking action against DeLay, he says he was shunned for months by his party leadership and prevented by Ney, who chairs the powerful House Administration Committee and controls the mail, from circulating a letter explaining his actions. Bell was also rebuked by the Ethics Committee for improperly filing his complaint. "It had a chilling effect," he says.
In that kind of climate, it's more convenient for Democrats to complain about ethics scandals than to actually do anything about them. One lawmaker, Pete Stark of California, placed a $500 ad on NationalJournal.com in June against disgraced Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham. But Stark didn't file an ethics complaint. Stark says that he was "informally advised by colleagues that this wouldn't be a good idea" and was assured that the Ethics Committee would "get to Cunningham in its own time," so "throwing rocks wouldn't do any good." Of course, Stark notes, "the committee didn't get to him, the prosecutors did."
The composition of the Ethics Committee, split equally between parties, allows the Democrats power that they enjoy on no other committee in a Republican-controlled Congress. As Congressional abuses in the Abramoff investigation become impossible to ignore, will they once again take advantage of that power? Asked whether Democrats would start filing ethics complaints again, Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider was less than emphatic: "We're getting to the point where you may see Democrats that do that," Crider said.
"There is a culture of corruption," says CREW's Sloan, mimicking the familiar refrain of Pelosi and other Democratic leaders. "I just wish the Democrats would do more than talk about it." That would mean ending the ethics truce, filing new complaints, insisting that outside groups be allowed to file complaints and pushing for an independent ethics commission of outside experts or former members of Congress to end the charade of the House policing itself. It's true that a full-on Democratic effort to revive House ethics investigations carries the risk of partisan retaliation. But Democrats should forget about Congressional tit-for-tat. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page has called on the House Ethics Committee to sanction the likes of Bob Ney. If this is not the time for both parties to get serious about Congressional ethics, when will it be?
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation and a Nation Institute Puffin Foundation writing fellow.
2006 The Nation