Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Congress & Ethics

As an off year elections looms and a hyper partisanship already at large increases, the behavior of congressman and women will likely become more and more relevant to considerate viewers of both the House of Representatives and our Senate. The implications of a scandal involving an incumbent pol at this juncture could be massive. Therefore a finite understanding of the Congress and how it resolves ethical matters would be germane.

First off, it is important to note that this year will be no different from others in relation to sheer amount of scandal and grandstanding that follows. Though there may be a few more or less breaking stories and different players, ethical lapses are not endemic to just one party. For instance, in the 2006 midterm elections the Republican majority suffered a precipitous drop in popularity in time for pundits to lodge their largest indictment against the Speaker’s party (I.E. Abramoff).Already marred by prior scandals including those surrounding then Majority Leader Tom Delay, the sheer impact of the aforementioned Abramoff scandal only fortified expectations of a Democratic sweep that November. With a stigma tarnishing the Republican brand already, few noticed that Abramoff had also plied his favors on Democrats in the years prior to his indictment and conviction. To put it shortly, scandal and ethical violations can also involve the opposition though less will likely take notice.

Congressman Ney Resigns in Wake of Abramoff Scandal

House and Senate Practices

In the House of Representatives, codes and norms are provided for and enforced by the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee, or as it is usually referred to, the Ethics Committee. A standing committee it has a long history, one of its first tasks dating back to its 1798 when it voted to censure Congressman Matthew Lyons for “Gross conduct,”. The entire House subsequently opposed the measure however and refused the advice of the committee.

The Duties of this committee our provided for by the Codes of Official Conduct adopted under House Rule XXIII. These codes allow the committee to do the following: Recommend Administrative Action to establish or enforce the standards of official conduct, Investigate alleged violations of the code, Report to the appropriate federal or state authorities evidence of a violation, render advisory opinions (such as whether to admonish or impeach a sitting member, president, etc.), and consider written waivers of the gift rules.

An important trait this committee does not share with others is that it does not distribute seats proportionally. While other committees reflect the size of the majority party, the House Ethics Committee is evenly divided between five Democrats and five Republicans. The Chairman is a member of the majority party. The same can be said for the Senate Ethics Committee, though this committee is not standing. Despite its standing as a select committe it has existed for decades and has enjoyed great prestige in the wake of the Watergate scandal and subsequent investigations and trials. However, It is unlikely that any future congresses will dissolve the committee.



As mentioned before concerning ethics, history has a way of repeating itself in hotly contested election years. Much like 2006, 2010 has seen its fair share of inquiries being launched concerning possible lapses in judgment of sitting members. Charlie Rangel, the stayed Harlem Democrat and Former chairman of the powerful Ways and Mean Committee was forced to resign this winter following an investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The committee would eventually vote in favor of admonishing the congressman. Admonishments are not exactly rare; they do however express a formal recognition of a party’s guilt. Adding further insult to injury, those who are admonished are done so with the complicit support of a fellow party member.
In a peculiar turn of events, Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert punished two of his fellow Republicans by removing them from Ethics Committee. One of those removed was MO Congressman Kenny Hulsof who would later claim his demotion, “was directly related to his role in the panel’s admonishment of House Majority Leader Tom Delay.” (Shesgreen) The removal of these two members also put a stop to further action by the committee with the absence of a quorum.
Other recent high profile admonishments have included those of former New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli (D), and the flamboyant Congressman James Traficant.


Rangel Following Admonishment


The right to impeach public officials is enshrined in the constitution in Article 1 Sections 2 and 3. While it holds that officials can be impeached for and conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors, Gerald Ford’s broader definition of impeachable offenses should be considered when accounting for today’s highly partisan congress. As the minority leader of the congress Ford held that, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” This statement, while not entirely true from a constitutional purist sense, reminds us that congress is a body responsive to public opinion. Those in congress may seek to unseat a member, judge, or United States officer should enough support exist. For example, Associate Justice Samuel Chase was impeached but eventually acquitted as the Senate found his House impeachment was due most likely to an anti-federalist bias in the House.

Though rare, impeachments are a well established practice with a wealth of precedence. The first such charges were levied at a Senator William Blount from Tennessee in 1797. The house would vote to impeach the Senator, however the Senate did not feel that was necessary. Both houses have the ability to dismiss their own members without the support of the other house. The Senate at that time, probably for the sake of swiftness, simply voted to expel Mr. Blount. Impeachment has since become a more codified practice with the publishing of Thomas Jefferson’s Manual, which the House has since used when pursuing impeachment proceedings or reviewing other parliamentary practices. The Senate however, does not use Jefferson’s Manual.

In the wake of the Clinton Impeachment trials, it almost became common knowledge that no US president has been subject to impeachment outside the House of Representatives. However, other civil officers throughout history have been successfully impeached by both houses. 13 federal judges have been impeached by the House, 7 of them were then impeached by the Senate. (Oleszek, 133)
Judge Alcee Hastings is likely the most controversial impeachment casualty. Impeached by the House and Senate for charges relating to a bribery trial, the Senate chose not to invoke measures to maintain that Hastings never seek a federal office again. Needless to say, Hastings serves in the congress now.

Note. From “Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process” by Walter J. Oleszek, 2007,p. 133. Copyright 2007 by CQ Press

Alcee Hastings Impeachment Hearings

Earmark Bloopers/Felonious Behavior

Any cursory review of ethics in congress would not be complete without mentioning the omnipresent practice of writing up earmarks. Everyone probably remembers earmarks dominating some juncture of the national debate as the 2008 elections arrived. However earmarks, and their seemingly odious character, arose as yet another issue just prior to the 2006 midterms. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California congressman who sat on both Appropriations and Intelligence committees would use his position to yield federal monies where his surrogates (including Abramoff) saw fit. Using a lack of transparency made possible by the sometimes inherently secretive nature of the Intelligence Committee (where there are both "public" and "secret" aspects to budgeting)Cunningham had thought he could hide such behavior. (Oleszek, 47)

The congressman would eventually resign his seat following his conviction for several offenses. Had he not resigned his seat, his workload would have been severely limited as House rules hold that no member can be active in a any committee following felony convictions pending an investigation by the Ethics Committee. Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana suffered a somewhat similar fate prior to his conviction for “conspiring to bribe". however Speaker Nancy Pelosi demoted Jefferson from his committees prior to his conviction in a move to save face.

Note. From “Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process” by Walter J. Oleszek, 2007,p. 47. Copyright 2007 by CQ Press

The "Duke" Calls it Quits

Earmarks or Pork?

With all the controversy that surrounds earmarks it seems that many have forgotten that some politicians got where they are by pursuing them. The task at hand for congressmen today has become somewhat more sophisticated with public opinion siding with a more cautious spending scheme. Despite this, public opinion will also turn against most members who have failed to "bring home the bacon". Some in congress have cultivated an image devoted to fiscal conservatism and express no qualms about appropriations going elsewhere. Both Senators McCain and Inhofe have bragging rights in this endeavor, however other congressmen may find such a task impossible. Economically depressed regions may boot out a pol for not attracting investment. Nearly every election year voters are bombarded with commercials where one incumbent or another is either criticized or lauded for their failure or success in bringing a multinational corporation or public works project to the area.

There is also the practice of comity that suffers when one legislator sets out to oppose another’s initiatives. Opposing earmarks also may appear as grandstanding to other legislators who may decide not to cooperate with such a person in the future.


DeMint and McCain Propose Moratorium

Sunday, November 8, 2009