Relatedly, we just ran an article on ethics committee reports at GovTrack:
The Senate and House Ethics Committees are bipartisan committees that evaluate potential ethics violations by senators, representatives, and their staff. The committees can find fault, for which the committee can take action, or not find fault. As a new session of Congress begins, GovTrack Insider examined all Senate and House Ethics Committee reports during the Congresses of the past 16 years.
Who did they investigate? Was fault generally found, or not? And did it ever affect a Congress member’s reelection?
Since 2001, the two ethics committees released 49 reports: 41 from the House and 9 from the Senate. Most of the reports related to individual members of Congress, though not all. Several reports jointly combined the possible ethics violations of several members who all committed the same possible infraction, such as when four House members were arrested for protesting outside the Embassy of Sudan. A few reports also relate to staff members, such as one House member’s chief of staff and another who worked on a different House member’s campaign. And one report also related to lobbying activities.
[The complete list of 21st century ethics reports, as compiled by GovTrack Insider, can be found here. We wrote about the related House Office of Congressional Ethics last week after Republicans tried to weaken the office.]
The 2015–16 Congress that just concluded last week issues five ethics reports, all on the House side.
All five of the ethics reports in this past Congress either resulted in the charges being clear or a “letter of reproval” rebuke, the lowest form of punishment the committee can issue to a Congress member.
Last week, House Republicans attempted to rename and significantly limit the powers of the existing Office of Congressional Ethics, which issues advisory findings without legal force for the House Ethics Committee to pursue. The move was quickly backtracked after a public outcry, but the desire of most House Republican to see the Office either curtailed or eliminated since its 2009 inception is no secret, and the move may be attempted again either later this year or within the next few years.
[Read GovTrack Insider’s article on the move and its potential policy implications here.]
According to a report from Public Citizen, 20 members of Congress were disciplined for ethics violations between 2009 when the OCE was created and 2014. That’s a substantial uptick from the 10 disciplines for ethics violations during the 11 years between 1997 and 2008.
The House Ethics Committee has held 36 investigations since OCE’s January 2009 start. According to a GovTrack Insider analysis, seven of these investigations were under 2009–10 Democratic control for an average of 3.5 per year, while the other 29 investigations have been under 2011–16 Republican control for an average of 4.8 per year. Republicans may oppose the OCE, but while helming the actual Ethics Committee which ultimately hands down decisions, they’ve been a bit more active than their Democratic counterparts. (It’s unclear whether that’s a result of the Republicans using the committee more aggressively or if there have legitimately been more apparent ethics violations in recent years.)
And lest one think the GOP misuses the committee for witch hunts against Democrats, 12 of the House Republicans’ 22 ethics investigations into individual members — as opposed to centering on a lobbyist, staff member, or group — were into fellow Republicans. Similarly, three of the four Democratic-led investigations into individual members were against fellow Democrats. (To be clear, not all of the investigations have resulted in a finding of fault or in punishment.)
The most noteworthy Ethics Committee findings are the ones that may have contributed to a member of Congress’s retirement or electoral defeat — or even imprisonment. Among those in the 21st century include:
The House Ethics Committee suspended its investigation against former Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA2) on corruption charges, which presumably would have resulted in a report and potentially sanctions, after Fattah was convicted on those same charges. Some members voluntarily take steps to prevent the release of an ethics report: former Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA9) resigned from the House in 2010 mere hours before the Ethics Committee would have released its report, which is believed to have revealed that Deal improperly used his House seat to benefit his Georgia auto business.
The chairs of the two committees for the current Congress have recently been announced: Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN5). For the Congress that just ended, it was also Isakson in the Senate but Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA15) in the House. The Senate Committee has so far announced an equal slate of three Republicans and three Democrats, while the House Committee so far has announced five Republicans and zero Democrats, though that will presumably be brought closer to parity with further appointments.
This article was written by GovTrack Insider staff writer Jesse Rifkin.