The Ethics Blind Spot: How the House and Senate ethics committees fail to foster a culture of high ethical standards in Congress

A new report from Issue One called “The Ethics Blind Spot” details how in at least 175 public and confidential ethics investigations over the past decade, the House Ethics Committee has compiled a record that fails to foster a culture of high ethical standards in Congress. The Committee’s tepid interpretations of ethics rules and timid approach to enforcement undermines public confidence in the integrity of one of the key institutions of our democratic republic.

Examples of lax enforcement by the House Ethics Committee include years of unresolved harassment investigations involving Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) and Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY); cases of self-dealing lawmakers like Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) who were absolved following tortured interpretations of standards of conduct; unenforced rules against lawmakers such as Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) who flagrantly flouted federal law and recommendations from the House Ethics Committee for five years; and actions by the House Ethics Committee that seemed aimed at purposefully undermining independent investigative oversight, as was the case when the committee attempted to bury the report of an all expense paid overseas trip, funded by a state-owned oil company, to Baku, Azerbaijan for 10 members of Congress and their staff.

An Issue One analysis of publicly available reports and data from both bodies also found that:

  • In total, since 2008, the House Ethics Committee has recommended the House issue one censure in a matter, one reprimand in another and issued 10 letters of reproval. Five of those cases were referred by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).
  • In another seven cases referred by OCE, the House Ethics Committee cleared individuals of wrongdoing but simultaneously issued updated guidance and clarified rules of conduct lawmakers must follow in the future.
  • More than 21,000 private citizens have contacted OCE for more information about ethics oversight in Congress, or to submit allegations of misconduct. Notably, OCE has initiated a preliminary review of only 182 matters and referred just 74 of those cases to the House Ethics Committee for further review.
  • A majority of alleged violations reviewed by OCE fell into the categories of illegal campaign activity, impermissible gifts, misuse of official funds and questions about financial disclosure documents and travel.
  • Since the 112th Congress, the House Ethics Committee has resolved at least 125 cases confidentially, compared to just 55 cases with publicly-disclosed outcomes over the same period.
  • At least four cases have been under review by the House Ethics Committee for more than three years — or at least one full election cycle, negating Americans their role in public oversight as they head to the ballot box every two years.
  • Since 2009, at least 14 cases of misconduct before the House Ethics Committee were closed with no conclusion, leaving voters in the dark as to the accuracy of allegations, and giving the public the impression that the Committee was simply waiting for the member of Congress in question to retire or not run for re-election.

The report further details the number of cases where the House Ethics Committee “lost jurisdiction” over an investigation due to a member of Congress retiring, resigning from office or losing re-election before the House Ethics Committee truly began their investigation, or completed it.

”It is no surprise that the Office of Congressional Ethics is unpopular with Members of the U.S. House of Representatives,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One and an expert of government ethics and conflicts of interests who has followed the congressional ethics process since the 1980s. “The job of the Office is to conduct independent investigations without consideration of political consequences for those under investigation. That duty by definition runs counter to the interests of the elected officials it oversees. I would indeed be worried if OCE was popular inside Congress since its purpose is to stay above the fray and to bring independence into an ethics process that is easily clouded by political considerations — as demonstrated by the House Ethics Committee’s record.”  

This report should serve as a go-to resource as the public continues to question the ethics oversight process and the ability for Congress to hold its members accountable while more allegations of harassment, discrimination and unethical behavior roil Capitol Hill.

Many elected leaders prefer to keep conflicts of interest or ethical violations from public view, hiding behind the innately-political House Ethics Committee. Worse, many of these same members of Congress continue to try and undermine the OCE, whose rigorous record of independent investigations stands in stark contrast to that of the House Ethics Committee. Two attacks aimed at sabotaging OCE have come in the 115th Congress alone — one behind closed doors before new House rules were finalized in the opening days of the new Congress, and another during the reform of discrimination and harassment procedures in the House.

Read the full report, “The Ethics Blind Spot” and explore the accompanying infographics and policy solutions at www.issueone.org/ethics-blind-spot.