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Opinion: Ethics Committee Investigation for Harassment Is Not ‘Zero Tolerance’

Referring sexual misconduct allegations to panel is as good as doing nothing

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s touting of the Ethics Committee was more disturbing than her defense of Rep. John Conyers Jr. on “Meet the Press,” Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s touting of the Ethics Committee was more disturbing than her defense of Rep. John Conyers Jr. on “Meet the Press,” Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi had a profoundly terrible appearance Sunday on “Meet the Press,” when, among other things, she defended Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the longest-serving Democrat in the House, in the face of multiple sexual harassment allegations against him from former female staffers.

First, Pelosi made a call for due process, which is always important, of course. But then she got into the weeds. “Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two?” she said to NBC’s Chuck Todd. “I think there has to be — John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women.”

Although the “icon in our country” line is what seemed to get Pelosi into the most trouble, it was what she said later in the interview that I found more disturbing — the suggestion that having the House Ethics Committee investigate Conyers’ conduct was evidence of a new “zero tolerance” policy for harassment in the House. “We’ve asked for the Ethics Committee to review that,” she said of the complaints against Conyers. “He, I believe, will do the right thing. It’s about going forward.”

Put me in Rep. Kathleen Rice’s camp on the idea that the House Ethics Committee isn’t the key to zero tolerance for much of anything, especially allegations of sexual harassment in Conyers’ office or any of the 440 other House offices, over which the committee has jurisdiction. Last week, the sophomore Democrat from New York was among the few members of Congress saying what many staffers already believe — that referring sexual harassment allegations to the Ethics Committee is as good as doing nothing.

“Saying that we’re going to have these allegations against politicians go before an Ethics Committee that can sometimes take a couple of years, no offense to my colleagues who are on the Ethics Committee, but that’s not real,” Rice told CNN last week. “That’s not real. And that’s not accountability.”

Watch: What Are the Sexual Misconduct Charges Against Current Democratic Members?

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Problem panel

There’s a reason that the Ethics Committee has the reputation for being the place where thorny political problems go to die, and it’s not because the panel isn’t staffed by professionals, because it is. And it’s not because the members on the committee aren’t well-intentioned, because there is no reason to believe that they aren’t.

But consider the enormous workload of the committee, which is responsible for all ethics training, travel approvals and financial disclosures for House members, House candidates and senior staff; its partisan makeup (evenly split between five Democrats and five Republicans); and its dismal track record for producing real consequences for bad behavior. It’s no wonder, then, that the Ethics Committee can quickly begin to look like Washington’s biggest, darkest rug to sweep ethical problems underneath.

The case of Rep. Blake Farenthold should be proof alone. In late June 2015, the House Ethics Committee received a report about the Texas Republican from the Office of Congressional Ethics, the outside agency created to independently review complaints about members of Congress for any wrongdoing. The OCE recommended that the Ethics panel dismiss allegations from Farenthold’s communications director that the congressman had created a sexually charged workplace and then fired her when she complained about it.

The Ethics Committee opened its own inquiry into the congressman in 2015, nonetheless. But a year and a half later, it had still not finished its review, so the matter carried over to the 115th Congress, when a new Ethics Committee was sworn in. In the meantime, the congressman and his former staffer reached a settlement after she sued him in federal court, the details of which were not clear. If the Ethics Committee itself ever reached a decision in the case, it has never been made public. The Ethics committees in both chambers often open and close cases without ever disclosing that an investigation existed.

Surprising dearth

Above and beyond the details of the Farenthold case, the strangest part about it is that it is the only sexual harassment case the Ethics Committee’s own report says it dealt with in 2015 or 2016.

For the previous four Congresses, which covered eight years, the committee disclosed just one sexual harassment case, which was against Rep. Alcee Hastings after he was accused of improper conduct on a trip overseas. After a more than two-year investigation, the committee found there was not enough evidence to prove the Florida Democrat had violated House rules. Two congressmen investigated publicly in 10 years, with no punishment delivered.

Over the same period of time, the Ethics Committee investigated multiple high-profile cases against members of both parties for different ethical violations, including conflicts of interest, money laundering and improper use of House resources. Several of the most serious cases wound up with criminal charges, and the members have gone to jail.

Others ended with a censure, a reprimand or a “letter of reproval,” a very congressional punishment that’s essentially a letter going into a congressman’s employment file.

But the last time either the House or Senate Ethics committees took serious action for sexual misconduct was in the 1995 case against Sen. Bob Packwood, when the Senate panel recommended he be expelled from the chamber. Instead of facing expulsion, the Oregon Republican resigned.

Simply sending Conyers, or Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, or eventually even Alabama Republican Roy Moore, to the Ethics committees isn’t the answer to ending the culture of sexual harassment that exists on Capitol Hill, which a recent CQ and Roll Call survey found is ongoing and widespread. The Ethics committees have been functioning as long as the problem of harassment has existed and persisted on Capitol Hill, and they have done nothing to end it or to change the culture.

With a penchant for secrecy, a massive workload, rotating leadership and a track record with almost no results, simply calling for an Ethics Committee investigation into allegations of sexual harassment is not zero tolerance. It’s zero consequences. And it’s not nearly enough.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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