Ethics watchdog groups on both sides of the political spectrum initiated a push Tuesday to unlock the doors to the House ethics committee, thereby allowing outside organizations to file complaints and trigger investigations of potential wrongdoing by lawmakers.
The groups decried a 1997 rules change that for the first time barred outside organizations from directly filing ethics complaints, as well as the effective truce in place since then that has virtually eliminated activity by the 10-member ethics panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
“In 1997 the House decided it was tired of enforcing its own ethics rules,” said Trevor Potter, president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, which spearheaded the effort to focus attention on the issue.
He said House lawmakers have gone on “an ethics strike.”
“They have prohibited outside groups from filing complaints with the House ethics committee and have agreed on an informal truce so that no Member will file a complaint against another Member,” Potter said. “The result is an almost nonexistent House ethics process. The public is entitled to better than this.”
In the past seven years, the ethics panel has taken disciplinary action against five lawmakers, but three of those cases were driven by House rules requiring an ethics review when a lawmaker is involved in legal proceedings, such as the 2002 felony conviction of then-Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio).
Potter was joined at a press conference announcing the effort by the heads of Judicial Watch, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the Center for Responsive Politics, Public Citizen, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Public Campaign.
Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, said, “The illicit agreement between Republicans and Democrats to not bring ethics charges against each other for the past seven years has resulted in an ethics gap in the House of Representatives.”
Fitton pointed out that Republicans came to power in 1994 due in large part to public outrage over several scandals that erupted under Democratic rule.
“Rather than change the regime as they promised and restore and invigorate the ethics process in the House, they eviscerated it over the past 10 years,” Fitton said.
“The party of small government has become the party of big corruption,” he said.
At the time of the 1997 rules change, many lawmakers expressed fear that a more open policy toward ethics complaints could create an environment where Members of Congress would be the target of baseless ethics charges initiated by political opponents.
Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said, “Just because there is a political motive behind a complaint does not mean that it’s invalid.”
The groups called on the House to change the rules to allow outside groups to file complaints and demanded an end to the ethics détente between the two parties. But they also said the ethics panel should immediately initiate a formal investigation into allegations of bribery and extortion first raised by Rep. Nick Smith.
The Michigan Republican said he was pressured to change his vote with promises of campaign money and support for his son during the tense three-hour floor vote on Medicare in November 2003. The ethics committee, responding to public pressure, issued a statement earlier this month that disclosed it had begun an informal, preliminary examination of the allegations, but there has been no further word on the status of the case.
The heads of Common Cause and Democracy 21 criticized the committee for failing to address questions raised by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (Texas) plan to raise money during this year’s Republican National Convention in New York for a charity intended to help abused children.
The charity, Celebrations for Children Inc., has strong ties to DeLay, including board members who also serve as fundraisers for DeLay’s political operations.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said DeLay’s plan would allow Members of Congress to attend — free of charge — golf tournaments, yacht cruises, dinners and other events during the convention on the CFC’s tab.
“We have three times asked the ethics committee to rule on the legality of that plan. So far — because of the way they now conduct business — they have declined,” said Chellie Pingree, director of Common Cause. She added, “Their message to us was basically, ‘This is not the public’s business.’”