For House Ethics Committee, Now Is Do-or-Die Time

Three observations about this Congress and the next: First, on the ethics process and the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Congressional pages. The House ethics committee’s tattered reputation is on the line, and two words are keeping it from total collapse: Rep. Howard Berman.

Resident Scholar Norman J. Ornstein
Resident Scholar Norman J. Ornstein
Berman, a California Democrat, brings enormous credibility to the process, both from his own personal reputation and from his driving desire to make the ethics process work. Berman knows full well that if this investigation falters--on partisan grounds or for any other reason--it is the end of any credibility for the existing committee.

Standards of Official Conduct Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), of course, also knows that his own personal reputation is on the line, and that fact should make him more open to a no-holds-barred, honest look at Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his aides Scott Palmer, Ted Van Der Meid and the others who will be under the microscope. But the high stakes here still make the process--and the promise to conclude in weeks--dicey, especially since the difference between four weeks and five weeks would be enormous.

But even if the committee comes through this with its credibility intact (or enhanced), it does not suggest that the ethics process is back on track. The pathologies that have gripped this process in the House for years, and that led to its utter, embarrassing collapse over the past two years, remain.

It still is largely a passive, reactive body that doesn’t take complaints from the outside, will get precious few complaints from the inside and will do little proactively unless a huge brouhaha erupts, as happened in this case. It desperately needs some outside, credible, independent investigative presence.

I believe the committee made a big mistake in ignoring the past two precedents of ethics investigations of the Speaker, in which an outside counsel was employed. The creation of an independent office is a compelling need, and it should be the first order of business when the 110th Congress convenes.

Second, on the page program. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) suggested to Roll Call last week that Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and I be enlisted to take a look at the entire program. The odds of Hastert asking us to do so are less than zero. But here are a couple of observations about the program anyway.

The page program should not be abandoned. It is a valuable way for young people to become immersed in the legislative process.

Moreover, it needs a new process of oversight: Along with a page board that includes Members and staff, there also should be an outside overseer. Much like the ethics committee, pages need to have the ability to go to someone who is not connected to current Members or leaders if they have an issue or a complaint.

The best suggestion about the page program I have heard comes from the National Review’s Kate O’Beirne. The process of choosing pages, which makes current Members their patrons, means that the program skews toward kids of their friends, contributors or other connected folks in their districts. O’Beirne suggests having all the pages chosen from the District of Columbia, emphasizing those from poorer backgrounds. This would give a leg-up to kids who can most use it, and the pool of talented ones is large. Just as important, these kids could go home at night and not have to be housed in a dormitory or put into more at-risk situations that come with living on Capitol Hill itself.

Third, I want to address one element of the larger “culture of corruption.” There is one, and I don’t blame Democrats at all for making that fact a centerpiece of their broader campaign to take back the majority. But it will be hard to make the case that Democrats are the party to clean up the culture of corruption if Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) is out front as a leading candidate for Majority Leader.

Readers will remember when I wrote about the failure of ethics and lobbying reform back in May that I commented on the failure of the Democrats’ motion to recommit, which was a reasonably strong package of reforms, despite the votes in favor of 20 Republicans--all because of the inexplicable “nay” votes cast by four Democrats, including Murtha. Now we know, according to David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, that Murtha traded his vote on lobbying and ethics reform to Republicans in return for earmarks.

Step back and reflect on this: Lobbying and ethics reform died because Murtha traded his vote in return for earmarks. The earmarking explosion is, of course, the epitome of the culture of corruption; just consider the stories about the Speaker, Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) and several California Republicans getting rich from real-estate deals that were enhanced by earmarks they directed. What kind of a message does it send if you install someone who killed ethics and lobbying reform in return for earmarks in a top leadership position?

Recently, right-wing Web sites have posted the full video of Murtha from the ABSCAM sting a quarter-century ago. It is devastating. Unlike several of his colleagues who were expelled, went to jail, or both, Murtha did not take the bribes offered by FBI agents posing as wealthy sheiks. But the video makes clear that he bragged about his own power and his ability to pull strings and make things happen. He also trashed his colleagues who were bribe-takers for their ineffectuality and said to the “sheiks,” in effect, “keep in touch.”

This story had faded over time, but it is back, even if the larger mainstream media have ignored it. It won’t stay faded if the culture of corruption issue, accelerated by the Foley scandal, becomes a driver to a Democratic majority.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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