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Ethics Shenanigans Undermine Public Trust

March 15, 2005

Ethics Shenanigans Undermine Public Trust

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

Partisanship is appropriate in politics, not in ethics decisions.

But the 109th Congress is all politics all of the time.

The Republican House leadership – desperate to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay from accountability for his unethical behavior – has exposed the absurdity of Congress policing itself.

After years of turning a blind eye to the ethical transgressions by members of Congress, the House ethics committee last year stood tall and unanimously condemned Tom DeLay’s ethical misbehavior in raising money, coercing votes and demanding information from a government agency for political use. The ethics committee, consisting of five Democrats and five Republicans, stepped up to the plate for the first time in years and issued three rebukes to Tom DeLay for compromising the integrity of Congress.

The House Republican leaders? They mimicked King George III, whose brash power grab sparked the American Revolution.

  • The Republican leaders fired three of the Republican members of the ethics committee, including the chair.
  • They replaced the members with allies of Tom DeLay, including two who have already contributed to DeLay’s legal defense fund.
  • They weakened the House ethics rules so as to render the ethics committee impotent.

The new House ethics rules and procedures were secretly drafted in the back halls of the U.S. Capitol by the Republican leadership, intentionally excluding the Democratic leaders. There is no bipartisanship in the weakened rules forced upon the ethics committee.

But there is another rule the Republicans forgot to change. The 10-member ethics committee by majority vote has to adopt these new rules before it can operate. And the five Democratic members, led by that revolutionary from West Virginia, Rep. Alan Mollohan, have refused to do so.

The Democrats’ revolt is expressed in House Resolution 131 to re-adopt the prior rules so that the ethics committee can operate fairly. If this resolution is not adopted, the Democratic members will shut down the committee. Public Citizen supports this effort. The ethics committee is now a farce.

Public Citizen strongly encourages all members of the House to sign on to Rep. Mollohan’s resolution 131 to get party politics out of ethics. If House Republican leaders ignore Rep.    Mollohan’s resolution, House members should force a public debate on the issue through a discharge petition.

We applaud Mollohan and the Democratic members of the ethics committee. But even H.Res. 131 does not go far enough.

More than any other lesson that we can glean from this embarrassing travesty is that sitting members of Congress are the very worst watchdogs for policing ethics in Congress.

If we are ever to remove partisan politics from ethics and ensure that our representatives act honorably and according to the standards the American public demands, we need to establish an independent agency – free from partisan loyalties and from campaign money – to monitor and enforce ethics in Congress. It is time to earn the public trust.