Ethics Reform not just about Corruption


The Hill and Roll Call are both covering the political struggle to reform the ethics review process within the House. These articles cover very real concerns about how effective oversight can be negotiated for the most bottom-up of our three branches of government. Legislators are understandably reluctant to relinquish control over their own standards and affairs, regardless of how ineffective Congress’s current enforcement mechanisms may be.

Reform of the ethics referral process (and, presumably, ethics enforcement) has been pushed to relevance by the most obvious failures of the Ethics Committee, but Congress would do well to recognize that the Ethics Committee has functions beyond the politically explosive. Not only do they have responsibility over the most egregious ethics violations, the Ethics committee is responsible for oversee all sorts of House Rules requirements that are generally overlooked.

For example, the Congressional Record is supposed to be a real record of events in the Congress.

For example, House Rule XVII covers the Congressional Record, and mandates that "The Congressional Record shall be a substantially verbatim account of remarks made during the proceedings of the House, subject only to technical, grammatical, and typographical corrections authorized by the Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner making the remarks. …This clause establishes a standard of conduct within the meaning of clause 3(a)(2) of rule XI."

That clause, the presumptive enforcement mechanism, points to the Ethics Committee: "The committee may investigate, subject to paragraph (b), an alleged violation by a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, officer, or employee of the House of the Code of Official Conduct or of a law, rule, regulation, or other standard of conduct applicable…"

Has this rule been effective? No.

Going back in time, the March 8, 2007 edition of Reason Magazine lists Congressional Record inaccuracies in an article entitled "The Imaginary Adventures of the U.S. Senate." The January 22, 1995 Sunday Edition of the New York Times praises the (then newly) codified requirement that only "grammatical, and typographical" corrections be made to the Congressional Record, referring to the the record itself as "venerated Capitol Hill oxymoron." Go back even to December 1959, to Vol 12, No. 4 of The Western Political Quarterly, and you’ll find Howard N. Mantel’s "The Congressional Record: Fact or Fiction of the Legislative Process."

It isn’t clear that the Congressional Record has ever been an accurate record of what is said on the House or Senate floor.

As the chapter of the Open House Project report on the Congressional Record makes clear, this isn’t an academic issue; lawyers and judges often use the Congressional Record to research the legislative intent when interpreting our nation’s laws.

Congress would do well to consider quality control of its own information while reconsidering ethics enforcement. If they can take on congressional corruption, they should have an easy time with copy editing.