Even with the Republican party backing off a threat to neuter the House Office of Congressional Ethics, it’s instructive to remember why the office exists in the first place.
It’s all fairly recent history. In June 2005, a story broke in the San Diego Union-Tribune about a member of Congress who served on the committee that assigns money to defense projects. He had sold his house to a prominent defense contractor for more than $1.6 million. The defense contractor immediately put the house back on the market and sold it for a $700,000 loss, but it didn’t matter: He was winning tens of millions in contracts from the congressman’s committee.
That congressman was Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a former Naval officer turned lawmaker. The conflict of interest seemed clear: Why was a contractor paying above-market values for a home he didn’t need in a private transaction without a real-estate broker?
At that time, the House Committee on Ethics was the organ charged with policing the conduct of lawmakers. But it had a reputation for looking the other way: A bipartisan venue, it requires unanimity to act, and the members on the committee declined to say or do anything about Cunningham, even as it became clear that the FBI was looking into his relationships with federal contractors.
It was part of a pattern at the House Ethics Committee
Other scandals would emerge in the year ahead. The Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was found to have misled and over-billed his clients, and was implicated in improper payments to Texas congressman Tom Delay, who was then the Republican leader in the House, and Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican. Separately, Delay was charged with violating Texas campaign finance law; he would be convicted of the money laundering charges in 2010 before they were overturned on appeal in 2013.
The House Ethics Committed had nothing to say about any of it. Cunningham would resign in 2005, and plead guilty to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes; besides the home, contractors bought him a yacht and antique furniture, and handed him cash. Delay would step down from his leadership position, while Ney stepped down from his committee chairmanship, although both promised to run for office again.
The Democrats, seeking to return their majority, naturally framed their 2006 campaign as a run against a “culture of corruption” in Congress.
Under political klieg lights, the Committee spoke in May 2006, announcing it would do nothing about Delay because he had decided to resign; it appointed a committee to investigate allegations against Ney and William Jefferson, a Democratic lawmaker who was raided by the FBI under suspicion of accepting bribes; and it said it would look into additional allegations about Cunningham, who at this point was already in jail. It wasn’t exactly a record of action.
Then it emerged that congressman Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, had exchanged inappropriately sexual messages with House pages—high school students who run errands for members. The scandal came with the suggestion that his behavior was covered up by Republican leadership.
An independent Office of Congressional Ethics is created
When the Democrats won the 2006 elections and took office in 2007, they pushed to create an independent Office of Congressional Ethics to avoid the years of studious silence produced by lawmakers when given the task of judging themselves via the House Ethics Committee. Court cases against disgraced congressmen were still in the news, and a new Republican leadership hoped for a clean slate ahead of the 2008 elections. The final straw was the indictment of Republican congressman Rick Renzi in February 2008, on corruption charges.
Once created, the Office of Congressional Ethics did what the House Ethics Committee wouldn’t: Make public allegations of corruption, investigate them, and refer them to criminal prosecution when necessary. It immediately made itself a nettle to the Democrats when long-serving New York representative Charles Rangel was found guilty of numerous ethics violations, a record that led to a public reprimand from the House. Some Democrats now complained that the office was unaccountable, but it survived after the Democrats lost power in 2010, and an agreement between the parties, renewed after the election of Donald Trump, kept it open.
The midnight vote at the start of 2017 to remove the office’s key powers and hand them over to the committee was reportedly driven by members of Congress who felt the office had treated them unfairly. Public outcry against the move may have led Republicans to abandon the move for now, but remarks from speaker of the House Paul Ryan and president-elect Trump suggest they see the problem as one of political optics. Trump, while criticizing the timing of the proposal, characterized the office as “unfair,” while Ryan endorsed the changes that would give Ethics committee lawmakers full control of the office.
The neutering of Congress’ only independent ethics watchdog–the Senate has none—may be merely postponed, not cancelled.