This week, Democrats demanded President Trump be investigated for alleged sexual misconduct; Republicans demanded the special counsel on Russia be investigated for alleged conflicts of interest. Meantime, new sexual harassment probes started up recently in Congress, including against Congressmen John Conyers and Trent Franks and Senator Al Franken before he announced his resignation. We investigated what Congress' ethics committees really do.
Meredith McGehee: People who live in glass houses don't like to throw stones. That's the truth, on the House and the Senate side.
Meredith McGehee is executive director of Issue One, a nonprofit working to drain the Washington swamp. That includes reforming how Congress investigates misconduct within its own ranks.
Sharyl: Is it accurate to say that all of the ethics bodies that oversee Congress in some way are created by or beholden to Congress?
McGehee: Absolutely. The people that sit on the ethics committees, one day they're judging whether or not their colleague has violated congressional ethics rules; the next day they're probably going on the floor trying to convince them to vote for one of their amendments. So there's a built in conflict of interest.
The House and Senate ethics committees were formed in the 1960s, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. Even for serious violations, harsh punishment is rare. When the House Ethics Committee found Congressman Charles Rangel guilty of 11 violations including to failing to pay significant taxes while he chaired the House tax committee. Rangel received a censure: the equivalent of a strongly worded letter.
Sharyl: The House members serve two-year terms, but these proceedings and ethics committees sometimes take a long time. So they're getting to, in essence, serve out a term while their case is being deliberated?
McGehee: Some of these investigations go on for month after month after months that stretch into years.
Congressman David McKinley was re-elected twice during a House Ethics Committee probe that took five years. When they found he repeatedly “disregarded” their written advice and violated House rules regarding his private business. His punishment was merely the letter saying so Now that this letter has been issued, the Ethics Committee wrote: this matter is closed. The Senate Ethics Committee, McGehee says, is even more problematic, with the vast majority of 677 allegations over the past decade dismissed and only five letters of admonition.
Sharyl: Where does a letter of reprimand go, for a member of Congress? I guess into their file?
McGehee: I guess into their file; the circular file I guess. And we don't even know in the public record exactly what that Senate Ethics Committee has done. They make no public comment. They have no public record of a particular senator or staff. And then at the end of the year put out a few numbers that are pretty meaningless.
McGehee says serious dysfunction dates back to the late 80s when the ethics committees figured into an all-out partisan war.
McGehee: Some people may remember the days when there were allegations made against the House Speaker; Speaker Wright. He had received some benefits from the books that he was trying to sell. Lobbyists and others were buying them.
The House Ethics Committee cited Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat, for five ethics violations. He became the first Speaker to resign amid misconduct allegations.
Jim Wright: All of us, in both political parties, must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end. There has been enough of it.
Democrats soon got payback against the Republican who’d led the ethics assault against Wright: Newt Gingrich. The House Ethics Committee investigated him for conflicts of interest when he became Speaker in 1995. Gingrich got slapped with a reprimand and a $300,000 fine. Meantime, over in the Senate, the Ethics Committee found five US Senators guilty of lapses ranging from poor judgment to improper interference with an investigation Keating Five savings and loan scandal. McGehee says there was a ceasefire when both sides decided they were getting hurt.
McGehee: People referred to it for a long time as an ethics truce in which neither party would file an ethics complaint against the other because they were afraid if they did one, then the other side would do one, and so they just had a truce.
During that truce, a flurry of public scandals focused attention on Congress’ ethics challenges. Republican leader Tom DeLay, nicknamed The Hammer for his tough party tactics, was caught up in various conflicts of interest. But DeLay’s conflicts netted nothing stronger from the House Ethics Committee than a letter stating: it is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions
McGehee: From the ethics viewpoint, really, the hammer never came down on The Hammer.
There were bribery scandals involving Congressmen James Traficant, Duke Cunningham and William Jefferson; all of whom went to prison. And Congressman Mark Foley, who allegedly sent sexually explicit messages to teenage boys; current and former Congressional pages. Amid the public outrage over Congress behaving badly, the House created a new Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008 to investigate complaints. Notably, it doesn’t have the power to punish. It can only refer cases to the House Ethics Committee where fellow members of Congress decide their colleagues’ fate.
McGehee: They did not give the Office of Congressional Ethics subpoena power. It's very hard for any investigative body to do a very good job when they have no subpoena power. What's happened now 10 years later is because they don't have subpoena power, the K Street lawyers who are now representing members and staff, they're telling their clients, ‘don't cooperate.’
During its 10 years, the House Office of Congressional Ethics has received 182 complaints. Most were dismissed. Only a relative handful resulted in any discipline, which McGehee says amounted to a slap on the wrist. How does it impact what we're looking at today when people hear members of Congress being accused of improprieties that the ethics committees, whatever they are, will take care of this?
McGehee: Well, it’s interesting when the Ethics Committee feels like it's politically convenient, all of a sudden they can take on a case. Some of your folks may recall Senator Vitter had been involved in a prostitution ring. The Senate Ethics Committee had said Well, first, none of this occurred while he was a Senator. so we have no jurisdiction. Now comes Senator Franken. They want to investigate something that happened before Senator Franken was a Senator. So suddenly they say OK we'll take the case, where they precisely had refused to take a case before that on exactly the same kinds of issues.
Sharyl : What do you conclude from that?
McGehee: What I conclude from this is that the Senate Ethics Committee is a place where you go when you have political hot potato and you don't know what else to do with it. And they can change the rules to deal with whatever is politically convenient for that moment. And that's not a Republican or Democratic issue. The Senate Ethics Committee is the perfect place to let it go and cool off.
McGehee says only public pressure can change the dynamic that’s long dominated the system Congress set up to police itself.
McGehee: There is a tendency to want to go for a slap on the wrist to let something that's very heated and radioactive at the moment referred to the Ethics Committee and then let it cool down and maybe even be forgotten. And so it is kind of this dead letter office in many cases where they're more interested in protecting each other than they are in ensuring high ethical standards.
This week a top congressional ethics official who oversees investigations into the misconduct of lawmakers was charged in a federal lawsuit of verbally abusing and physically assaulting women. Omar Ashmawy, denies the charges that stemmed from a bar brawl in Pennsylvania in 2015.