The ethics committee returns – but will it do any good?

The House ethics committee has opened three different investigations – after nearly 16 months of inactivity. Most notably, this marks the first time in a year and a half the committee has acknowledged the flurry of ethics scandals which have overrun the Capitol.

The Clean Up Washington campaign has been critical of the moribund ethics committee for some time now. Just to be sure I was giving the ethics committee a fair chance before writing this blog, I went to their website to read up on their work investigating the Jack Abramoff scandal. Even without having launched any formal investigations, surely the ethics committee would have looked into the largest congressional scandal in years, one that involves multiple members and staff and millions of dollars. So what does the House ethics committee website have to say about the scandal?

“0 documents match your search Jack Abramoff

Click here to see it for yourself or go to their homepage and find out what else the ethics committee hasn’t been investigating.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of the ethics committee opening investigations into corruption allegations against Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and William Jefferson (D-La.), as well as the ever-widening bribery investigation around the now-imprisoned Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.). This is an important first step, even if it should have been taken long, long ago. It’s just difficult to have much confidence in a committee that worked so hard to resist even holding a meeting. Without profound changes to the congressional ethics process it seems unlikely the just-announced investigations will result in anything more serious than letters of admonition,”  such as the ones sent to then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in 2004. Sadly, even those letters proved too harsh a punishment for a member of the House, as Republican leaders responded by relieving the committee chairman of his duties and stocking the committee with party loyalists.

It has become abundantly clear that politicians cannot police politicians. How many more members and their staff must be indicted or plead guilty before Congress enacts real reform? The plethora of congressional scandals shows once again the need for an Office of Public Integrity, at an absolute minimum, to establish independent enforcement and restore public credibility to the ethics enforcement process. If Congress doesn’t start making real changes now it looks more and more like voters will in November.

-Collin Jergens