Congressional Ethics Committees Yield Little Punishment

Critics say internal watchdogs are ineffective.

February 6, 2009, 4:43 PM

February 9, 2009— -- It may have seemed brash when Rep. Charlie Rangel called for the House ethics committee to investigate questions about his apartment deals, taxes and an alleged quid-pro-quo donation for earmark scheme late last year.

But if history is any guide, there's little reason for Rangel to worry. Why? Because congressional ethics committees rarely discipline members of Congress.

"The ethics committees never do anything," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics in Washington. "When is there anyone's conduct that they actually think is a problem?"

This reality contrasts with the rhetoric of congressional Democrats like Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who pledged to "drain the swamp" of corruption when she took over the leadership more than two years ago.

Indeed, it was only in 2007 that the committees first began disclosing any statistics at all, required as part of the new ethics and lobbying legislation.

The disclosures are still limited and only require aggregate statistics on the number of cases and broader results. But the annual reports show that the Senate Ethics Committee hasn't taken significant disciplinary action against any member in the past two years. Of the 85 complaints in 2008, the committee dismissed 64 because of a lack of jurisdiction, according to the annual report. And the committee issued only two letters of admonishment - for now former Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Larry Craig (R-ID) - but made no disciplinary sanctions.

The House committee was not much different. Known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, it is also comprised of a bipartisan split, five from each party.

Unlike the Senate, the House is not required to release any statistics. But it did report that it opened inquires into former members William Jefferson (D-LA) and Richard Renzi (R-AZ) along with former Rep. Vito Fossella, who decided not to run for reelection last year after pleading guilty to drunk driving, and Bob Filner, who pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor trespassing charge. None resulted in any action - in part because they were overshadowed by the criminal probe and because the members are no longer in office. The only statement was toward Filner who they publicly said used poor judgment but refrained from any action.

The investigation into Rangel also continues.

Secret Hearings

What's more, much of these committees' actions have been done completely in secret. The Senate committee, comprised of three members from each party, has complete discretion over whether it makes an admonishment public or sends it in a private letter. It has been years - and in the case of the Senate, decades - since the committees held public disciplinary hearings.

The House committee only takes complaints from members, although a new Office of Congressional Ethics in the House will now receive complaints from anyone and vet them for the committee.

A spokesperson for both committees said committee rules barred any comment.

But committee defenders say that many complaints fall outside the committee. Sometimes investigations are truncated because the Justice Department urges the committee not to interfere with a criminal probe. The committee loses the right to investigate once a member leaves office.

And, of course, it's not to say the committees are not busy, particularly given the thousands of inquires regarding the new ethics and travel guidelines put into effect with the 2007 legislation.

Yet critics say that these committees present a challenge to the Obama administration's efforts to create more transparency in the ethics process.

"It is a blight on Congress that they talk about ethics and then do nothing about it," Sloan said. "They only view ethics as a way to score political points not as something they truly care about."

Click Here for the Investigative Homepage.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events