In the middle of a highly charged atmosphere on Capitol Hill, there is one center of bipartisanship in each chamber of Congress that remains above politics: the Ethics committees. And while they do most of their work outside the political theater with good reason, there is evidence of their productivity in little reported documents, in compliance with rigorous disclosure regimes and in the fact that so many members have resigned before the conclusion of ethics investigations.
For the second term in a row, the House Committee on Ethics announced in January that every vote it took in the last Congress was unanimous. That is four years of bipartisanship in numerous cases, including 61 public statements about investigations. In those four years, the committee unanimously empaneled investigative subcommittees in seven matters, established working groups to examine concerns about ethics rules or procedures and submitted 24 public investigative reports to the House, comprising thousands of pages of analysis and evidence. To accomplish this, the committee met 75 times and the subcommittees met 55 times. Beyond full committee actions, the chairman and the ranking member worked together to review 126 allegations of misconduct, sign more than 1,800 advisory opinions and approve or reject more than 8,000 privately sponsored travel proposals.
I have witnessed the work of both committees as counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee and as chief counsel and staff director of the House Ethics Committee. Having come to the Hill after a career prosecuting public officials for criminal violations, a friend asked if I had become more pessimistic about integrity than when I was a prosecutor.
The answer is just the opposite. In fact, there was nothing I enjoyed more about my job than seeing the senators and representatives in those committee rooms leave their party affiliation at the door and do nothing but strive through serious and intelligent discussions to be responsible and faithful to the public and the institution, and to be fair but firm with those under their jurisdiction.
The evidence shows many others in Congress also take the committees and their roles seriously, and act accordingly. In recent years members in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle have resigned amid ethics allegations before facing questions by the committees or their public reports. In addition to these dramatic demonstrations, mundane statistics also reveal widespread respect for the committees’ roles. In 2014 alone, the Senate Ethics Committee reported more than 10,000 inquiries by phone and email for advice and guidance, and House Ethics reported more than 20,000 of the same.
The evidence also shows leadership on both sides take these committees seriously, principally through assignments to the unpopular committees. In my time, the leaders in both chambers appointed serious, well respected members who are themselves public servants of tremendous integrity. Through these important assignments, leaders ensure that the committees’ work is trustworthy, serious, and fair.
As with any large community, there will always be members of Congress who do not take ethics seriously enough. That’s why there will always be room for improvement. This year, small reforms were made to the House Ethics rules — some serious and productive, others merely symbolic. One serious reform was making new member ethics training mandatory.
Other reforms to increase compliance and fairness remain aspirational. For example, the House Ethics Committee has issued reports acknowledging the need for greater clarity on conflict of interest rules, and has formed a working group for that much needed clarification. In addition, along with increased investigative activity, Congress should reimburse employees’ legal fees when questioned as witnesses or if no violations are found against them in investigative matters related to their official duties, just as executive branch agencies can and do. Finally, as is the case in the corporate world, the committees should promote rigorous voluntary office compliance programs by rewarding members with a presumption that they will not be held responsible for isolated violations of staff, if evidence exists that a serious compliance program was in place when the violation occurred.
Despite the popular refrain that “congressional ethics” is an oxymoron, this easy insult couldn’t be further from the truth. Personal integrity is common in Congress, although it is not perfect or universal. While there will always be more work to be done, the evidence is that many members and staff take the work of the ethics committees seriously and know that inside those walls, the regular politics of the day are not the regular order.
Dan Schwager is the former staff director and chief counsel of the House Committee on Ethics, and counsel on the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. He has also served as a federal corruption prosecutor and a corruption prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. He is currently of counsel to Martin & Gitner, PLLC.