Lingering House Ethics Cases Test Claim Of Reform

Correction Oct. 21, 2009

In the original on-air version of our story we said: "Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha is under federal investigation for allegedly trading government earmarks for campaign contributions." There has been no public announcement of a federal investigation of Rep. Murtha. Later versions of the story reported that Murtha is closely tied to several officials and defense contractors who are under federal investigation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi i i

hide captionHouse Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says the House has made progress on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's promise to clean up its reputation.

Susan Walsh/AP
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says the House has made progress on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's promise to clean up its reputation.

Susan Walsh/AP

If you believe the polls, Americans have a pretty awful opinion of Congress: Approval ratings hover in the low 20s, pushed down by partisan bickering and ethical scandals. It's a reputation Democratic leaders would like to rehabilitate — especially with midterm elections just over a year away. To that end, they've changed the House ethics system and taken on new investigations.

When Democrats took over the majority in the House, the newly minted speaker, Nancy Pelosi, promised to lead "the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland says they've made real progress: "We take very seriously the issue of congressional ethics, which is why back in 2007, we adopted strengthened rules for ethical oversight and ethical conduct."

Democrats banned gifts from lobbyists. They prohibited House members from flying on corporate jets and put in place new reporting requirements for lobbyists. They had open discussions about how the ethics committee — long stalled by partisan warfare — could be reformed.

Democrats created the Office of Congressional Ethics, a board made up of mostly former members of Congress and staff that takes in complaints from outside Congress, investigates allegations and recommends action to the ethics committee — an additional level of eyes, Hoyer calls it.

"All of that, I think, was an indication that we view the ethical conduct of the people's business as critically important to their confidence and, very frankly, to the quality and substance of the policies that we adopt," he said.

A 'Dysfunctional' System

So, is the new ethics process working?

"No, the ethics process remains as broken as ever," says congressional watchdog Melanie Sloan, "and I think the main evidence you have for that is that no one has been disciplined by the House ethics committee, even since the new Office of Congressional Ethics formed."

There are all kinds of ethical problems just hanging out there, says Sloan, who runs the nonpartisan group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha is closely tied to several officials and defense contractors who are under federal investigation for allegedly trading government earmarks for campaign contributions. California Republican Jerry Lewis has had similar allegations against him for years — he and Murtha are both top members of the powerful appropriations committee. Democrat Maxine Waters of California is under investigation for pushing government bailout money to a bank her husband had a stake in.

Sloan says another good example of the dysfunctional ethics system is the investigation of New York Rep. Charles Rangel, which has dragged on for more than a year even as new problems are uncovered: He didn't pay taxes on some of his income; he didn't report all of his assets on financial disclosure forms.

Hoyer says all this shows the new ethics system is working.

"In the Rangel case, they've just issued additional subpoenas for individuals and for documents. I think they're doing a very thorough investigation of that," he says. "These take time."

Some of the allegations against Rangel wouldn't have come to light without a functioning ethics committee, he says.

The Rule Of Law

One big problem with the ethics committee is its secrecy, says Meredith McGehee, policy director of another watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center. The members absolutely refuse to talk about any of its business, including who they're investigating and for what.

Yes, privacy is important, McGehee says, but "this black hole concept is just really poisoning the ability of the congressional ethics process to have credibility with the public."

Ethics allegations have become the easiest rock to throw at the other party, she says. And if there's no way for voters to distinguish serious problems from simple partisanship, they will just assume all politicians are corrupt.

"In a democracy, that notion is very dangerous; that undermines the very fabric of being able to get a participation level in democracy that we need to have it function. So that's why, to me, the ethics issue in the end is such a critical issue. It goes to the fundamental ability of our democracy to thrive."

The rule of law is part of what makes the United States what it is, McGehee says. When Congress can't mirror that ideal by setting its own standards of conduct and policing them, then there's no reason for citizens to trust members of Congress — and little reason to vote.

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