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.