At the very least, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is guilty of bad judgment, and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who chairs the House tax writing committee, is guilty of being bad at doing his own taxes. The jury is out on whether either man broke Congressional ethics rules. And if history is any guide, that jury will be out for a very long time.
In the House of Representatives, an ethics inquiry into Rep. Rangel's failure to declare property and income on his tax filings for years, has dragged on for more than a year. The committee has voted to extend its inquiry and questions about Rangel have expanded to include a rent controlled apartment he used as an office in Harlem, and the diversion of earmarked funds to create a school in his name at the City College of New York.
But while questions about the long-serving Democrat have grown, the House Ethics Committee has toiled in secret.
Democrats are expected to block a Republican attempt to strip Rangel of his chairmanship on Wednesday.
Over in the Senate, Ensign admitted in June to having an affair with a former staffer's wife, paying the couple off with $96,000. The plot thickened last week when the New York Times reported that Ensign may have broken ethics rules when he tried to set the staffer, Doug Hampton, up with a lobbying job.
The Senate Ethics Committee does not comment on ongoing investigations, so it was news Oct. 4 when Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the committee, admitted even that her colleagues were conducting a "preliminary inquiry" into Ensign's activities.
Boxer's confirmation of the preliminary inquiry came more than three months after Ensign admitted to having the affair and resigned his Senate Republican leadership post.
Since admitting to the affair, Ensign has clammed up about his dealings with Hampton. He told CNN Tuesday that he would cooperate with all investigations, but would not comment about them while they were ongoing.
While the Sixth Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees American citizens a fair, speedy and public trial when they're accused of criminal wrongdoing, lawmakers like Ensign and Rangel play by a different set of rules when they're accused of breaking ethics rules.
Internal congressional inquiries drag on for months and months, are conducted behind closed doors, and rarely result in any disciplinary action. Senators Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn., never admitted any wrongdoing over the VIP loans they received from Countrywide Financial and said they hadn't a clue they might have violated Senate gift rules. It took the ethics committee 14 months to agree.
It's a broken system, according to Melanie Sloan, who runs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which made a formal complaint about Ensign to the Senate Ethics Committee in July. They also asked the Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate whether he broke federal law by paying off Hampton.
"They never actually enforce the ethics rules," she said of the House and Senate ethics committees. "The ethics committees are there for cover."
Sloan pointed to Sen. David Vitter, D-La., as an example. Vitter admitted at a press conference in July 2007 to hiring a prostitute when he was a member of the House of Representatives after his phone number was revealed in the trial of the "D.C. Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey.