It's Time For a Robust Ethics Process

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Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Usually, I'm all for bipartisanship. Over the last few months, however, one particular bipartisan accord has started to unravel in Congress, and all I can say is, "Hurrah!" 

I'm referring to the "truce" in the House of Representatives, under which Democrats and Republicans have informally agreed not to bring ethics charges against one another. Coupled with a 1997 rules change forbidding outsiders from bringing complaints to the House ethics committee, this détente had effectively frozen the ethics process in the House. Since 1997, according to Common Cause, the committee has taken official action on only five cases, and in three of those, as the organization pointed out in March, "the controversy in question was also the subject of a criminal proceeding, making the issue virtually impossible for the committee to ignore." 

To be sure, a couple of weeks later the committee did announce that it was launching an investigation of charges by Republican Nick Smith of Michigan that unnamed GOP colleagues may have tried to bribe him to vote for last year's controversial Medicare prescription drug bill by promising to help his son's congressional campaign. But that formal investigation simply serves as a reminder of the years during which the committee has been publicly moribund. Its counterpart in the Senate, while hardly full of zip, has neither prevented members of the public from requesting investigations nor engaged in a pact of silence. 

Of course, the current state of affairs in the House has its roots in a particularly tumultuous period of congressional history. For a time during the late 1980s and early 1990s, charges and counter-charges flew around the chamber, fed by the rising partisanship of the era. The ethics process in essence became a political tool, used by members and their political opponents to weaken one another. Among other things, the charges led to the resignation of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, to a steep fine against Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, and to a bitter, poisonous atmosphere on Capitol Hill. 

The initial idea for the truce was a good one: the ethics process was being misused as a political weapon. But it went on for too long a time and too far in the wrong direction, as charges against members that could undermine the integrity of the Congress weren't being pursued. And muzzling the ethics process has hardly improved matters. Partisan rancor remains as high as I've ever seen it, but now the House also faces rising public doubts about its institutional probity. A partial list of public allegations against its members, aired in the press, includes accusations that a member sought a job with businesses benefiting from legislation he worked on; that another member tried to strong-arm lobbyists into hiring staff belonging to his party; that a third steered millions of dollars in contracts to members of his family; that a fourth misused a federal agency for political purposes; and that several used campaign funds illegally. 

Having served on the ethics committee when I was in the House, I know how difficult an assignment it can be. Even as you investigate another member of Congress, you're often depending on him or her for support on legislation. And hearings on ethical charges take a vast amount of time that could otherwise be spent on trying to understand the complex policy questions that face Congress every day. 

The alternative, though, is the state of affairs we find today, in which the effective standard of behavior for a member of the House has become that he or she not be a convicted felon. That is a far cry from the written rules, which expect that members will behave "in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House," and an even farther cry from the just expectations of the American people. 

I have always thought that the vast majority of members of Congress are honest, hard-working legislators, and I expect that most of the legislators on Capitol Hill today feel similarly. For them, close as they are to daily legislative life, they may not always see the need for vigorous ethics enforcement- especially if they expect their political opponents to use it against them or other members of their party. 

That is too narrow a judgment, though. It ignores the interests of the institution itself, and undermines the foundation on which public trust of democratic institutions is built. Surely the American people deserve not just honest members of Congress, but a Congress that is serious about policing itself. It is time for both houses to take a hard look at how they monitor the behavior of their members, and to fashion a robust, credible ethics process that is immune to public cynicism. 

And if partisanship is the problem, then perhaps congressional leaders might tackle it directly, rather than use it as an excuse for undercutting institutional standing. "Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things," Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address. It was good advice then, and it is good advice now, two centuries later. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)