I know, I know. The two words leave you ROTFL: Congressional ethics.
But this gets funnier. First, House members determine the legal but unsavory and corrupt behaviors that keep them collecting that $174,000 paycheck with generous federal health and retirement bennies. Then they reverse-engineer the ethics code to make all those behaviors ethical. Every now and then they pass serious, consequential ethics reform and lard up a press release touting it, as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, freshly minted as House speaker, did three years ago:
House Democrats got straight to work this week by passing the toughest Congressional ethics reform in history. We have broken the link between lobbyists and legislation: banning gifts and travel from lobbyists and organizations that retain or employ them, banning travel on corporate jets, shutting down the K Street project, subjecting all earmarks to the full light of day …
Oh, don’t stop there, House felons solons. When public outrage rises again, given that Pelosi’s “serious and substantive steps to ensure Congress governs with the highest ethical steps” didn’t work out so well, pass even more ethics reform. This time, pass a bill in 2008 that creates what Common Cause said was “a monumentally important resolution to create an independent, bipartisan panel of non-lawmakers to help review and investigate possible ethics violations by House members.” [emphasis added]
That’s not working out so well either. The House now has two ethics panels that produce more conflict between them than censure or (better yet) strong cases leading to removal of corrupt House members.
Under its brief, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics can recommend to the House ethics committee (which consists of House members) either that “the matter requires the Committee’s further review or that it should dismiss the matter.” In other words, the independent ethics office is toothless. The House committee can ignore the ethics office’s “recommendations.” And it does.
In 2009, the ethics office told the House committee it should review further allegations that Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) asked a business associate of his wife’s to testify before the Small Business Committee. The House balked, dismissing the charge against Graves and criticizing the investigation of ethics office — the very panel the House created. The ethics office fired back, rebutting the criticisms.
What should be expected from a House panel of overseers comprised entirely of the overseen? The House ethics panel does not appear to be overworked: Its website lists only 12 reports dating back to the 105th Congress.
This past week, the House panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, again chose not to act on more ethics office recommendations. So the hilarity continues: From a New York Times story last week by Eric Lichtblau and David D. Kirkpatrick:
The House ethics committee cleared seven members of Congress on Friday of official charges of wrongdoing in a lobbying scandal despite a separate, independent investigation that cast a harsh spotlight on the pay-to-play culture in Washington.
The ethics office, said The Times, found “that private contractors who received millions of dollars in defense industry earmarks from the seven lawmakers generally believed that their political contributions to the members facilitated the financing their companies received.” [emphasis added]
The House ethics panel, that “standards of official conduct” bunch, cleared all seven members of charges. Sayeth The Times : “All served on the powerful defense appropriations panel, which doles out billions of dollars in earmarks.”
Voters can conclude, of course, based on the House ethics panel’s actions, that House members are honest and above reproach. Heck, just ’cause the House ethics panel consists of the foxes watching the foxes, there’s no reason to suspect skulduggery among thieves, is there?
OpenCongress, a project of the Sunlight and Participatory Politics foundations, provides this “index of current and recent members of Congress currently under investigation by the congressional ethics committees, or under investigation, indictment, or conviction by law enforcement authorities, based on credible media reports” [emphasis added]. And there’s a similar list compiled by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Always fun reading is CREW’s annual lists of “the 15 most corrupt members of Congress.” Also delightful is the FAQ section of the House ethics panel’s Web site, apparently intended to guide members to appropriate ethical behavior.
Yep, it’s hysterically hilarious that so many members of Congress, who at one time probably thought that public service meant serving the public, made one little compromise, one small exchange of favor for favor, one itsy-bitsy, wink-wink deal … and look at them now — chasing money to pursue power, and cheating to do it.
Sadly, the joke’s on us.