Do the Rangel and Waters trials show that the ethics process has been strengthened?

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Chris Van Hollen, the House Democrat’s campaign chief, recently stated that the upcoming ethics trials of Reps. Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters prove that the ethics process has been strengthened under the watch of the majority Democrats. I’m not so sure that that’s the case.

If we take a walk back through time we’ll see that the ethics committee was plenty busy in the nineties and even during the dark days of the early to mid aughts.

Over the course of ten years during the Republican majority, the committee issued five admonishments (three to Rep. Tom DeLay), two letters of reproval, one sanction and one expulsion. Of course, there were also numerous issues that the committee failed to cover including the Jack Abramoff scandal and the Duke Cunningham scandal.

What appears to make the recent spat of ethics flare-ups notable is that the members involved are refusing to accept a lesser punishment by publicly accepting guilt and responsibility. Both Rangel and Waters have clearly been offered deals to accept lesser penalties in lieu of a trial. In 2004, Tom DeLay accepted committee admonishments and never went to trial. It’s clear that the what is operating differently at this stage of the ethics process is the obstinance of the lawmakers involved.

Despite that, there is one way that the ethics process has improved since 2006: the introduction of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). The creation of OCE, a body created out of compromise in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, has enabled a less corruptible body to review ethics complaints with more freedom and less clubbiness than the traditional ethics committee. The Waters charges began as an OCE investigation and were referred to the ethics committee.

Certainly, this counts as an improvement that has happened under the watch of the Democrats. The fact that two lawmakers refused to accept deals for lesser punishments and are pushing for public trials, not so much.

If Van Hollen wants to take credit for something else he can also point out that the current majority has followed a simple dictat: do no harm. The majority Democrats have not yet struck out to dismantle or neuter the ethics process, particularly OCE, despite pressure coming from both sides of the aisle.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Republican Minority Leader John Boehner have both been critical of the indepedent ethics office. If lawmakers want to truly maintain and expand upon a more just and credible ethics process they need to retain OCE as it is or increase it’s authority.

In 2005, after Majority Leader DeLay received three admonishments from the committee he moved to purge the committee of its members and change the way in which the committee ran investigations. The move was widely panned and the majority Republicans would have to walk back the changes in the coming months.

Neither the Democrats, if they retain the majority, nor the Republicans, if they win back control, should move to dismantle the ethics process by reducing the role of the independent OCE. The rhetoric coming from the CBC and Minority Leader Boehner are not encouraging. Hopefully they won’t follow DeLay’s lead and neuter the ethics process again.

I’ve included a quick summary of actions taken by the ethics committeesince 1996 below:

  • 1996: The ethics committee dismissed charges that Rep. Tom DeLay linked campaign contributions to his official actions and made improper favors to his brother, a lobbyist. The ethics committee also sanctioned Rep. Bud Shuster for serious official misconduct in dealings with his former chief-of-staff turned lobbyist.
  • 1997: The committee gave Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich a letter of reproval for violating tax laws and providing false information to the committee. The committee also fined Gingrich $300,000, the largest fined issued by the committee in it’s history. Later in the year the committee brought a six-count Statement of Alleged Violations against Rep. Jay Kim after he plead guilty to three misdemeanor charges of accepting illegal campaign contributions. The charges were dropped as Kim had lost his primary and the committee no longer held jurisdiction.
  • 1999: The committee dismissed charges against Rep. Corrine Brown, but stated that the congresswoman had used “poor judgment.” Rep. Earl Hilliard received a letter of reproval after a three-count Statement of Alleged Violations was brought against him for making improper loans to his campaign committee, failing to properly file financial disclose forms and making payments from his campaign to nonprofits and companies connected to him.
  • 2001: The committee voted to expel Rep. Jim Traficant after he was found guily of bribery, racketeering, tax evasion and many other laws. The full House of Representatives voted to expel Traficant in 2002. The committee also dismissed claims against Rep. Steve Buyer.
  • 2004: The committee admonished three members, Reps. Tom DeLay, Candice Miller and Nick Smith, for their actions during the vote on the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act. DeLay also received two separate admonishments for other violations of laws and House ethics rules.
  • 2006: The committee dismissed complaints against Jeffrey Shockey, the deputy chief of staff to Rep. Jerry Lewis. Rep. John Conyers was scolded by the committee for letting his congressional staff do campaign work. The committee also settled a long-running dispute by ruling that Rep. Jim McDermott had violated the spirit of the House by leaking information related to the ethics investigation of then-Speaker Gingrich to the press.
  • 2007: Former Reps. Tom Feeney and Curt Weldon were ordered to pay for travel that they accepted in violation of House rules. Feeney agreed to pay, but it is unclear whether the committee has jurisdiction to force Weldon to pay.
  • 2010: The committee brought a thirteen-count Statement of Alleged Violations against Rep. Charlie Rangel for a variety of violations of House rules. That case will be adjudicated. The committee brought a State of Alleged Violations against Rep. Maxine Waters, who will also take the case to the adjudication phase. Rangel was also admonished separately for accepting corporate paid travel. The committee also cleared the following members on a variety of charges: Reps. Pete Stark, Pete Visclosky, Bill Young, Norm Dicks, John Murtha, Marcy Kaptur, Todd Tiahrt, James Moran, Bennie Thompson, Yvette Clarke, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick and Del. Donna Christensen.
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