Few things are more difficult for Members of Congress than sitting in judgment of their own. It’s especially tough when the House ethics committee sets trials for two senior Members in the weeks before an election.
One could argue that the members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct are responsible for the inopportune timing; after all, it took two years to get to this point in the case of Rep. Charlie Rangel, who now stands accused of 13 ethics violations.
However, until we learn more about this case, including a more detailed rebuttal to the charges from the New York Democrat, we will withhold further complaint about the pace of the ethics process in this particular matter. Surely the Democrats on the ethics panel and their party leaders cannot be pleased with the timing of these events, and yet here we are.
We cannot help but wonder, however, whether it was really necessary for this circus to begin at this hour. Congress has had years to get tough on ethics matters, with the appropriations process in particular demanding attention. Yet too many Members of both parties saw too much to gain in manipulating the federal budget for maximum personal benefit. The result of inaction was a rapid, bipartisan rise in what looks too much like pay-for-play conduct in the annual appropriations earmarking process. Congress’ internal ethics watchdogs largely stood silent rather than taking a stand on an issue that, if fairly and aggressively policed, surely would have embarrassed a good many Members of Congress representing nearly every demographic and region of the nation.
Instead, the ethics committee has chosen to pursue a few narrow situations. And so now the House finds itself standing in judgment of Rangel and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). While it likely is nothing more than coincidence, it certainly is problematic that the two most prominent Members in the ethical hot seat are members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The ethics committee’s capacity for dispensing justice has been a question mark for both parties for many years. Its choices of where and when to throw its weight around do little to reassure us.
We will not prejudge the merits of the cases against Rangel and Waters. However, we find it disconcerting that the charges lodged against Rangel in particular, if proved to be true, apparently do not merit his removal from the House in the eyes of the ethics committee. The complaint against Rangel includes alleged violations not just of House ethics, but perhaps of statutes as well. What does it take, exactly, for a lawmaker to earn sufficient scorn from colleagues to merit expulsion?
Whatever the outcome of the cases against Rangel and Waters, we fear that the lesson that House Members learn will be that it is better to run from ethics issues. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Congress’ shame has been inaction on matters of ethics. Leaders should try to thwart spectacles like this not by ducking their responsibilities, but by preventing questionable behavior with a commitment to exposing and punishing ethical transgressions.