The numbers behind why the Senate Ethics Committee is a black hole

A recent slew of high-profile cases has brought the U.S. Select Committee on Senate Ethics into the national spotlight. Increased media attention and public scrutiny stemming from cases like Senator Al Franken’s (D-Minn) alleged sexual misconduct against seven women — and the potential for jurisdictional tug-of-war if Republican candidate Roy Moore wins in the Alabama contest — has led to questions about whether the committee is doing enough to quell mounting public concern about ethical behavior by elected officials.

Why? Because at a time when public accountability in government remains a top priority for the American people, the committee’s track-record is one of lax enforcement that has imposed no disciplinary sanctions on anyone for a decade and is reluctant to even preliminarily review more than a handful of allegations.

An analysis of available data from the committee’s scant annual reports — the only public-facing information from the oversight body that began in 2008 thanks to the passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act — reveals next to nothing that would inform the public. Even simply tabulating the total number of allegations received and dismissed by the committee since 2007 is a task rife with pitfalls (and a conclusion that’s unverifiable by anyone but the committee itself). But as the only official dataset available, and a government source at that, an Issue One analysis found since 2007:

The Senate Ethics Committee has received 677 allegations of ethics violations, including the recent case of Sen. Franken. Of these cases, more than 85 percent of them — 589 in total — were dismissed. Fewer than 100 cases have undergone a preliminary investigation. How many alleged violations resulted in adjudicatory review over the last 10 years? Zero. How many matters resulted in disciplinary sanction? Zero. The only punitive action taken by the committee over that timeframe has been five letters of admonition — the equivalent to a slap on the wrist.

 

Year

Alleged violations

Dismissed violations1 2

2007

95

79

2008

85

64

2009

99

86

2010

84

80

2011

77

69

2012

47

42

2013

26

24

2014

45

43

2015

55

47

2016

63

55

2017

1

Unknown

Total

677

589

It is also important to note that the committee rolls over cases from year to year, but declines to provide any identifying information as to which individuals are under investigation. There is no way for the public to glean from these reports when cases have officially been closed, or how often they have lingered from one year to the next. The body, for example, has issued only 10 press releases since 2007; its House equivalent has nearly doubled that in 2017 alone.

In short: The Senate Ethics Committee is the embodiment of a black hole lacking a strong, public record of ensuring a highly ethical culture in the chamber it oversees.

It is likely the committee sees itself more an advisory body: Its own reports concluded it has conducted at least 1,000 trainings of staff and senators over the past decade, responded to at least 126,000 telephone and e-mail inquiries and issued more than 9,000 advisory letters. But even there, pitfalls exist: Senate offices must certify twice a year that all new personnel have been trained, either online or in-person. In contrast, senators themselves are only required to attend one ethics training within 60 days of election to office — no matter how long they serve in the chamber.

For all we know, the Senate has implemented its own version of the informal, seven-year “ethics truce” that existed in the House in the late 1990s, when both parties agreed not to submit allegations of misconduct against the other following an avalanche of criticism and allegations that touched top lawmakers like House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas).

Questions surrounding the committee’s effectiveness in upholding ethics and accountability standards for elected officials remain unanswered. The bare-bones reports obscures the committee’s process for investigations, making it impossible for the public to understand the severity of the allegations brought against their elected leaders, their staff or even what accounts for an ethical violation in the first place

Leadership in the U.S. Senate has not helped, either: Lawmakers have taken no steps to address the deficiencies in the chamber’s ethical oversight while the House established the independent Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008 to investigate potential conflicts of interest and ethical missteps. Now more than ever, that has to change as ethical enforcement at all levels of government is under question and less than 25 percent of the public approves of the job Congress is doing. The Senate needs to reassure the American people that strong guidelines and rules of conduct are not subordinate to partisan, party politics or winning re-election.

Issue One intern Mark Horvatin contributed to this report.

Footnotes:

Every year, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics releases an annual report revealing a number of alleged violations that the committee “dismissed for lack of substantial merit” or “because it was inadvertent, technical or otherwise of a de minimis nature.” The committee would not confirm that this was a subset of the overall number of alleged violations that the committee dismissed, as it details each year in bullet point #2 of its annual reports. In order to produce the most accurate, conservative estimate for the portion of alleged violations the committee dismisses each year, Issue One assumed such figures were already reflected in the totals described in bullet point #2.
From 2007-2010, the committee’s annual reports included parenthetical notes about whether the cases it dismissed originated in the same calendar year as the dismissal or a previous year. Since 2011, these parenthetical notes have been eliminated. In order to produce the most accurate, conservative estimate of the portion of alleged violations the committee dismisses in the same year it receives the allegations, Issue One assumed that matters carried over from year to year after 2011 were dismissed rather than still unresolved.