By Lee H. Hamilton
With the elections over, Congress faces a full plate of tough issues when it reconvenes. There will be a lot of talk about fiscal matters, “grand bargains,” and sorting out party caucuses. But there’s one vitally important question we’re certain to hear nothing about.
That is Congress’s own behavior — and more specifically, the behavior of its members. After what may be the most widely panned session in modern congressional history, Capitol Hill ought to use every means possible to rebuild the American people’s trust. Yet the matter over which it has the most control — striving to ensure the ethical behavior of its members — seems to be on no one’s agenda.
Earlier this year, The Washington Post detailed a stunning array of questionable practices. Its reporters found that 130 members and their families had traded stock in companies registered to lobby before their committees — and that over 5,000 of those trades occurred as the bills those companies were interested in came before Congress. In some cases, the ethics were even dicier. One lawmaker put her name on legislation extending the lifespan of federal grazing permits — which her husband used for feeding his cattle. All told, the Post found, 73 members of Congress “sponsored or co-sponsored legislation in recent years that could benefit businesses or industries in which either they or their family members are involved or invested.”
What might seem dubious to you or me doesn’t even raise an eyebrow in Congress, however. Legislators argue that because they need to represent the interests of their constituents, and their own interests often overlap with their constituents’, that means leaving them free to enact bills and direct federal money that just happens to boost their financial prospects.
The ethics committees seem largely to agree. Since the scandals that brought down speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich in the 1990s and then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2004, committee members in both the House and the Senate have been reluctant to police their colleagues. In the past couple of years, only two House members have been disciplined for ethical breaches. The Senate committee has sent out four “letters of admonishment.”
Ethics watchdogs believe the committees are more interested in protecting members than in overseeing them. It’s hard to argue with them when the Post investigation found that the ethics committees had given scores of lawmakers permission to direct earmarks to projects close to their own homes and tax money to institutions where they had relatives on the board.
Look, this isn’t complicated. To the ethics committees, these members of Congress were in the clear. But in terms of what ordinary citizens expect from their representatives, does their behavior pass the smell test? Is it okay to use public office to åhelp oneself and one’s family financially? I don’t think so.
Because there is one rule that the ethics committees seem conveniently to have forgotten: it’s the rule that members should always behave in a way that reflects credit on the institution they serve. Instead, what the public sees is an institution that protects its members by holding them to a far lower standard.
This matters at the moment not just because Congress’s credibility is in the tank. Four years ago Congress did act — though only under great pressure — to improve its ethical standing. It created the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent monitor that has used its scant power effectively to review members’ behavior and recommend action. Some of the cases it brought were so compelling they even spurred the ethics committees to investigate. The OCE seems properly to view congressional office as a public trust.
This may be because its board is made up of highly respected former members and public servants. For the office to continue its work, however, half those board members will need to be replaced by the start of the new congressional term in January, because their terms are expiring. So far, House leaders of both parties — who are charged with naming the board — have dragged their heels.
(Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)