House Must Overhaul “Effectively Dead” Ethics Oversight Process

Statement by Reform Groups at Press Conference

An ideologically diverse coalition of the nation’s leading watchdog organizations – the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Judicial Watch, Democracy 21, the Center for Responsive Politics, Public Citizen, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Public Campaign – today issued the following statement calling on the U.S. House of Representatives to overhaul its moribund ethics oversight process:

Today we call on the U.S. House of Representatives to overhaul its ethics oversight procedures, which have been effectively dead for nearly seven years.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct should begin this process by agreeing to fully investigate two serious matters now before it:

(1) alleged attempts to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI)

(2) Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-TX) alleged use of a children’s charity for political purposes.

If the Committee does investigate these matters, however, that welcome action will be the exception that proves the rule.

The ethics oversight process in the House is completely paralyzed. For years, serious allegations of wrongdoing have been neither investigated nor punished by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the only congressional entity with jurisdiction over the propriety of Members’ activities.

Three factors have worked in concert to render the House an ethics-free zone:

The 1997 Rules Change. In 1997, the House voted to change its own rules to forbid any outside group or citizen from bringing a complaint to request an investigation of an alleged ethics violation by a Member. This put the House on a distinctly different footing from the Senate, which allows outside complaints. As a result, neither ordinary citizens nor watchdog organizations are able to trigger investigations. Only Members may bring complaints against other Members.

The Members’ D‘tente. Since around the same time, Members of the House have observed an informal “ethics d‘tente” that has allowed numerous allegations of wrongdoing to go uninvestigated. Under this unwritten understanding, all Representatives have had an understanding that no complaints will be filed by Members of either party – thereby insuring that few complaints can, or will, be filed in the House. As a result, only two Members have lodged ethics complaints in the past seven years. The last was in 2001, when Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) alleged that Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA) had obstructed a police investigation into the disappearance of Chandra Levy. The Committee took no action.

The Ethics Committee’s Abdication. The ethics committee has power to act on its own, without a complaint, to investigate possible ethics breaches – and resolutely refuses to use it. In the past seven years, the Committee has taken disciplinary action against a Member on only five occasions. In three of those cases, the controversy in question was also the subject of a criminal proceeding, making the issue virtually impossible for the Committee to ignore. (Indeed, in two of those three cases, the Member in question had already pleaded guilty to a criminal offense (Rep. Jay Kim (R-CA) or been convicted of one (Rep. James Traficant (D-OH)).

As a result of this “triple threat” to real oversight, serious allegations of wrongdoing go unanswered, further diminishing public trust in Congress.

Today, we challenge the House to set this situation right.

The most important step the House can take is to change its rules to once again allow ordinary citizens and watchdog groups to request investigations through formal complaints.

We also challenge individual members to give up the absurd “ethics” truce that has resulted only in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and increased politicization of ethics issues.

Finally, we call on the Committee itself to act in the public interest by using its own authority, granted by 14(a)(3) and 18 of the Committee’s rules, to investigate complaints and bring disciplinary action where appropriate.

By abandoning these destructive practices, the House can begin rebuilding the American people’s lost faith in their public institutions.

Dowload statement by Common Cause President – (PDF)

Download “Decade of House Ethics Inaction” – (PDF)