Amidst all the criticism of the congressional term that ended last week and its Members (not all of it deserved, but that’s another story), there was one area in which the House at least made remarkable improvements. As was evidenced in a committee report released Dec. 31, the House Ethics Committee achieved several important and praiseworthy things that merit some attention.
First, let it be said that service on the Ethics Committee is a thankless task. Being put in the position to adjudge one’s own colleagues, in the midst of horrible partisan (and otherwise political) pressures, is no walk in the park. Moreover, Ethics Committee members are almost always blasted by some members of the public (and press) who don’t understand the committee’s role, its powers, and the limits on the same. What ordinary people might consider “unethical” in common parlance may well not violate specific rules of Ethics — and it is the latter, not the former, that the committee must apply; and it can apply no others. (This is somewhat, but not entirely, akin to saying that not everything that is wrong is illegal — as in, in ordinary life, it is wrong to tell a malevolent lie, but unless one is under oath it is almost never a crime to tell such a lie.)
As one last bit of explanatory prologue, consider this a lament that society has in some ways made the committee’s sanctions obsolete. There was a time when a official “censure” from Congress was treated by the public as a major sanction, the effect of a public shaming so severe that no decent person would want to endure it and which would certainly suggest that a resignation or other major act of public penance was in order. But “shame” is not in vogue these days. Standards have dropped so that what once seemed appalling now is broadcast to the world brazenly, with no personal reticence. Because shame is such an unfamiliar emotion (or experience, or whatever it is), an act of public shaming no longer carries the same power that is once did, or that it is intended to do. Thus, for instance, that which by the Ethics Committee’s (and Congress’s) own rules merits Censure now can be almost laughed off, as Rep. Charlie Rangel did, while the public accuses the committee and Congress of gutlessly “going light” on Rangel by not expelling him. It is not only the Members (like Rangel) who do not take shame seriously; so, too, does the public think it an utterly inadequate punishment. This says something bad about society, but not about the Ethics Committee, which operates under a code in which personal honor is still supposed to be taken seriously. It is unfair to blame the committee for “going light” at times when its own rules, which are more reasonable than ever, were followed to the letter.
That said, the report linked in the first paragraph above provides instructive reading. It shows a committee, chaired by Jo Bonner of Alabama (with Linda Sanchez of California as ranking member), that handled an astonishing amount and variety of work in the past two years.
Which brings us, finally, to the “remarkable achievements” mentioned also in this column’s first paragraph. The most significant — and, for those who have seen the process close-up, an almost astonishing one — was the news that, I believe for the first time in history, every single committee vote last Congress was unanimous. Every one. This indicates that the committee has finally lifted itself above the usual partisan tit-for-tat, and that the longstanding wish from outside watchdogs for a professional, non-partisan process has finally, at least for now, become a reality. This is no mean achievement. It shows that Congressmen are indeed capable of telling the difference between ethical disputes and political ones. In past years, going back decades, it was commonplace for the committee to split on important matters along exactly partisan lines, without exceptions, and with politics leading to cover-ups to protect one political party or the other. Now — no longer. Good stuff.
The second achievement lies in the sheer scope of the committee’s work. Pages two and three of the report tell the tale by numbers, among which (there are plenty more numbers) are: The committee issued more than 900 formal advisory opinions, fielded more than 40,000 phone calls for ethics guidance, provided training to 10,000 Members and staff, conducted all or parts of 96 separate investigations, and filed 14 full reports with the House, comprising some 1,700 pages.
The third achievement was the posting online of every single committee report going back to 1967 — a great advancement for transparency and the public record.
The fourth achievement, perhaps more mundane, was the adoption of revised regulations regarding what sorts of third-party-paid travel is and isn’t allowed for Congressmen and staff. Because some such travel actually provides great public good by allowing Members to do their jobs better (as in fact-finding missions, etcetera), and does so without forcing taxpayers to foot the bill, it is important that both Members and the public understand what is and isn’t allowed. Tightening restrictions to avoid things publicly described as mere “junkets,” while clarifying which sorts of travel are okay, is an important step toward transparent government and cleaner politics (and also makes it harder for campaign opponents to take “cheap shots” at Members who, believe me, often would much rather spend time at home than traveling half-way around the globe while enduring exhausting meetings).
None of this might make for a very “sexy” column, but it is important. And it’s only fair to give credit where due: At a time when Congress is less popular than the flu, the public needs to know when Congress does something right. A hat tip therefore, to Chairman Bonner, ranking Member Sanchez, and their committee colleagues. Maybe their constructive bipartisanship can set a template for future congressional subjects other than ethics.