Alabama Rep. Jo Bonner was upbeat last January as he spoke to local reporters about his new job as chairman of the House Ethics Committee.
“If at the end of the day, we’ve made a small dent in the public confidence [in] the United States House of Representatives, then I will feel like it was time well spent,” Bonner said.
Six months later, that confidence has sunk—not just in the public perception of Congress, at a bottomed-out 18 percent, but how committee members police themselves. In its probe of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) for allegedly using her position to help a bank in which her husband owned $350,000 in stock to obtain federal bailout funds, the committee announced Wednesday it was bringing in an outside counsel to try to salvage the inquiry, including an investigation of whether committee staff bungled the case by improperly sharing confidential information with Republican committee members.
As Politico reported, Blake Chisam, the former staff director, said in a memo last year that lawyers Morgan Kim and Stacy Sovereign acted improperly by passing on information in a separate probe of Charlie Rangel (D-NY)—which, Chisam said, “would have so tainted the proceedings that there would have been no option but to move to dismiss.” Their lawyer says the pair did nothing wrong and are being scapegoated.
A committee spokesman for Bonner and the ranking Democrat, California's Linda Sanchez, did not respond to several requests for comment. But the purported reason for the outside help, according to a release from the committee, was timing. “The hiring of an outside counsel will allow for an independent review and a faster resolution than if the committee staff were to handle it alone.” The release also said the extra help would ensure the objectivity of the process and would allow committee staff to work on “a growing number of other pending investigative matters.”
A translation was captured in a headline from The New York Times: “Ethics Committee Is Now Scrutinizing Itself.” The sentiment, picked up by countless blogs and spread further on Twitter, suggested a striking low in how effective the committee had become in addressing impropriety in Congress.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has long criticized the ethics investigation process on Capitol Hill, calling it broken and dysfunctional. “The whole thing is a disaster,” says CREW’s director, Melanie Sloan. “It’s hard to imagine how it could get any worse.”
Much of the problem stems from the basic nature of Congress, influenced by politics, personal motivations, and funding. In 2008, when Democrats were in charge, the House approved the creation of an Office of Congressional Ethics, run by people not associated with any member or staff to provide a layer of unbiased insulation. But politics have crept in. A House measure this month proposed cutting the committee’s budget by 40 percent. It was offered by Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Republican who was himself under investigation by the panel last year on allegations of illegal fundraising. (He was later cleared.)
Waters has lost patience with the process. Her office says she has spent $250,000 on legal bills fighting the allegations against her and that her entire staff has been strained trying to handle the demands of the probe. Waters, advised by her lawyers, declined to be interviewed, but her spokesman, Mikael Moore, told me: “The process we’ve been through is beyond frustrating.” The outside investigation, he said, “will make public its dysfunction.”
Not a single congressional analyst consulted for this story could recall a time since the early 1980s when the ethics process worked as it should. The closest thing to a successful case, one person noted, was the investigation of Rangel last year for a series of ethical lapses, including the misuse of congressional letterhead and financial conflicts of interest involving property he owned. Rangel was censured by the full House, the first time that's happened to a member in nearly 25 years. But the process took over two years and reportedly cost Rangel $2 million.
“It starts with the leadership at the top—they have to start caring about the ethics process,” says Sloan, acknowledging the difficulty of removing politics from Capitol Hill.
And perhaps it’s a lost cause. “What this all says is members simply can’t discipline themselves,” says Ilona Nickels, a congressional policy analyst. “The political reality is that [investigations] may have to come from a completely different outside authority.”