POLITICS

Unethical lawmakers face little chance of punishment

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Photo - U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) visits with constituents during a "Congress on the Corner" event at Berkley's district office January 14, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Berkley held the event to honor U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ).  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) visits with constituents during a "Congress on the Corner" event at Berkley's district office January 14, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Berkley held the event to honor U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Politics,Congress,Susan Ferrechio

The House Ethics Committee on Monday must announce whether Rep. Shelley Berkley is believed to have violated the rules by lobbying congressional colleagues about a company that benefited her husband's business. But ethics watchdog groups are not counting on the panel punishing Berkley.

That's because Republicans on the 10-member ethics panel fear that if they demand ethics charges against Berkley, a Nevada Democrat running for a pivotal U.S. Senate seat, Democrats on the panel will want to discipline Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican running for re-election in Florida whom the ethics panel is investigating for campaign misdeeds.

So the panel will most likely punt on a Berkley decision, at least until after Election Day.

"They don't make decisions based on the facts and law, they make them on the facts and law and politics," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.

Or more often, say Sloan and other watchdogs, the ethics panel makes no decision at all.

Last week, Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released a 115-page report about how a group of lawmakers and their staff benefited from a "VIP" loan program not available to the public that waived fees, cut interest rates and eased borrowing standards. Countrywide Financial offered the special loans in an effort to dissuade lawmakers from voting for stiffer banking regulations.

The report named names, with many lawmakers still walking the halls of Congress. But it did not include a letter from Issa calling for the ethics panel to investigate the matter. Without it, the ethics panel isn't required to do a thing.

"All he had to do was write a letter and attach it to that report," Sloan pointed out.

Issa spokesman Frederick Hill cited a long-standing practice by members to allow the ethics panel to decide on its own whether to investigate members.

But the ethics panel rarely acts on its own, leaving it up to members who are just as skittish about filing charges against each other, no matter how egregious the behavior appears.

Sloan points to a ethics "truce" between Democrats and Republicans that dates back to the era of Republican Newt Gingrich's House speakership, when an ethics war between the parties led to a decision by both sides to cease filing charges against each other.

Four years ago, House Democrats successfully campaigned on a "culture of corruption" platform against the Republicans, and as soon as they took the majority, they created the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent, nonpartisan board tasked with referring complaints to the House Ethics Committee.

But despite dozens and dozens of referrals from the OCE, the Ethics Committee has rarely punished members, and last year the House held a vote to defund the OCE out of existence. That effort failed by a 102-302 vote after heavy lobbying from watchdog groups.

Occasionally the Ethics Committee is compelled to act. It voted two years ago to censure Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., but only after Rangel initiated the investigation by filing a complaint against himself, saying it would clear his name.

And after the OCE released a damning report citing Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., for potential corruption, the Ethics Committee appeared on the verge of launching its own probe.

Deal, who was running for governor, quickly resigned, escaping the ethics panel's jurisdiction.

"And then," Sloan said, "he became governor."

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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