Congressional Ethics Committees Yield Little Punishment

Critics say internal watchdogs are ineffective.

ByABC News
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.