Considered Forthwith: House and Senate Ethics Committees

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I’ll be posting this over on Daily Kos and Congress Matters tomorrow night. I wanted to give Docudharma the first preview.

Also crossposted at my own blog (for my ten or so regular readers).

Welcome to the fourth installment of “Considered Forthwith.”

This approximately weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies. If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the “forthwith” tag or use the link on my blogroll. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

This week, Considered Forthwith will examine both the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. These are two small committees with no standing subcommittees. For the sake of ease, I will refer to the two committees as the “House Ethics Committee” and the “Senate Ethics Committee.”  

Unlike other committees, according to chamber rules, Democrats and Republicans have equal numbers of seats. Here are the members of the House committee for the 111th Congress:

Democrats: Zoe Lofgren, California (chair); Ben Chandler, Kentucky; G.K. Butterfield, North Carolina; Kathy Castor, Florida; and Peter Welch, Vermont.

Republicans: Jo Bonner, Alabama (ranking member); J. Gresham Barrett, South Carolina; John Kline, Minnesota; Mike Conaway, Texas; and Charlie Dent, Pennsylvania.

On the Senate side, the members for the 111th Congress are:

Democrats: Barbara Boxer, California, (Chair); Mark L. Pryor, Arkansas; and Sherrod Brown, Ohio.

Republicans: Johnny Isakson, Georgia, (Vice Chairman); Pat Roberts, Kansas; and James E. Risch, Idaho.

Unlike many other committees, there is rarely a waiting list of members to get a seat on one of these committees. Members of the two committees are essentially asked to sit in judgment of their colleagues.  Here’s the evidence from our own David Waldman who references this article from The Hill.

Both the House and Senate Committees are charged with considering revisions to the chamber rules and laws regarding official corruption by members and staffers. They are also charged with investigating allegations of wrongdoing. However, the most important part of the job is routine ethics training and offering advice to members and staff. These functions help members and staffers from running afoul of ethics rules inadvertently or otherwise. (The anecdotal evidence I am personally hearing around town is that the committee is doing a fine job of answering questions in a timely fashion.)

Since the fallout from the Jack Abramoff and other high profile scandals, the two chambers have tightened their ethics rules, most in regards to campaign contributions and relations with lobbyists.

Office of Congressional Ethics

One major reform last year was the establishment of the Office of Congressional (OCE) Ethics as an independent entity serving the House Ethics Committee. The OCE board is a bi-partisan panel citizens, some of whom have previously served in the House. When an allegation is made, the board has 30 days to complete a preliminary review. If there is enough evidence, they may conduct a 45 day secondary review (with the possibility of a 14 day extension). The OCE board then offers a recommendation to the House Ethics Committee to either further review the allegation or drop the investigation. The Committee is, of course, free to take whatever action they choose, but due consideration is given to the report.

The board members are Former Congressman David Skaggs, D-Colo.,(Chairman); Former CIA Director and former Congressman Porter J. Goss, R-Fla, (Co-Chairman); Former Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, D-Calif.; Former House Chief Administrative officer Jay Eagen; Former Congresswoman Karan English, D-Ariz.; George Mason University Law Professor and former chief of staff of Federal Election Commission, Allison Hayward; Former Federal Judge and former Congressman Abner Mikva, D-Ill., (Alternate); Former Congressman Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., (Alternate). Source is this Reuters article, confirmed by the OCE webpage.

Other new ethics rules

The latest ethics rules do not differ too significantly between the two chambers. I’m concluding this diary with a brief outline of the new rules, some of which are very recent and others which date back to 2007. Many of these rules have numerous caveats and exceptions. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but to give a sense of what the rules state.

For a full breakdown, see the House FAQ page and the links on the side of the page and the Senate’s overview (PDF file) as well as the main page for updates.

Gifts: Members and staffers may only accept $100 worth of gifts from the same source per year with an individual gift limit of $50. A gift to a spouse or dependent child is generally considered a gift to the member. A major exception is gifts made on the basis of a personal friendship rather than for access. (“Sure, I paid for Nationals tickets for the Congressman, but we have known each other since college. Besides, he paid for the Capitals tickets last week.”)

Food: This is one of those examples of government regulations that makes you scratch your head and say, “hmmm….” Members and staffers are invited to different functions all the time where food and refreshments are served. Under the new rules, members and staffers may not accept meals from registered lobbyists. The intent was to stop shenanigans like this.

The way the rules are written, however, lobbyists can only offer things like coffee, pastries, bagels, and hors d’oeuvres. This has lead to the local “food on a stick” joke. Basically, if the food will fit on a toothpick, it is okay to accept it.

Travel: Members must receive pre-approval for official business travel paid for by a private organization. Additionally, it bans registered lobbyists from planning a trip and traveling with the member. There are also time limits on the amount of time the member may spend on travel time. I won’t get too deep into the details and exceptions, but this rule addresses the issue of members and staffers leaving for “a business trip” in which “the official business” is a minimal part of a grand vacation.

Using official resources for campaign activities: This has been a standing rule since the 1970s, but it bears mentioning here. There was a time when members and staffers literally used their official, tax-payer sponsored offices for reelection business. That practice died after the Nixon era. However, members and staffers still need to be cautious, particularly on the phone and on e-mail. It is verboten to discuss campaign business on an office phone on using office e-mail, even if the conversation was unsolicited.

Transparency (done in conjunction with the appropriations committees): Members are now required to post all of their earmark requests on their websites. It seems like a small step, but it has huge implications. In the past, it was possible but very unwieldy to find every appropriations request that each member had made. New rules mandate that each member publicly state his or her requests.

This reform was partly in reaction to questions surrounding the now defunct PMA Group. PMA was a lobbying firm representing various defense contractors. PMA and its clients would make campaign donations to various members. Unsurprisingly, the largest recipients made earmark requests for the PMA clients in their districts. Here are two examples of that practice.  

The members, of course, argue that the earmarks directly benefit their districts and the contributions are legitimate sources of campaign funding.

At any rate, using the earmark information and campaign contribution sources like the Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org), citizens and journalists can “follow the money.” Using those resources and a couple of hours of work, I was able to track 2008 campaign contributions, fiscal year 2010 earmarks, and 2008 charges for lobbying  services for two Democratic members of the House Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations (John Murtha and Jim Moran). If anyone would like that information, please e-mail me.

On a technical note, the earmark reporting is not perfect. Some members post their requests prominently while others just post them as any other piece of news which is cycled through in favor of fresher content. Generally, though, a search for “earmarks” or “appropriations requests” will bring up the relevant information.

Other earmark reforms: The House also announced (PDF file) that all earmarks will be subject to a 20 day review by relevant Executive Branch agencies to ensure that the expenditure is legal and that appropriations to the private sector will be awarded through competitive bidding.

The revolving door
: This provision is a “cooling off period” for Senators and Representatives. Former Senators must wait two years before lobbying Congress. The cooling off period is one year for Representatives. Additionally, members and staffers are prohibited from influencing hiring decisions on the basis of partisan gain (which makes giving a reference a delicate proposition at best). There are similar rules under President Obama’s early Executive Order and the waivers that have been granted are giving fuel to the administration’s critics.

The intent is to limit the influence former members have with the current Congress. A common Washington practice is to serve in government for a few years and quit to lobby the same people you worked with. To investigate the Revolving door phenomenon, check out CRP’s work on the issue here. Another excellent resource is this National Journal article (which quotes one of my professors).

Finally, another useful link is the Office of Government Ethics. This is the Executive Branch office dealing with ethics in government. The Considered Forthwith series focuses on the Legislative Branch, but the link is included since this week’s topic is ethics.

Next week will probably be a discussion about the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, particularly with their work on torture, wiretapping, and judicial nominations (Senate only).  


  1. Casual Wednesday

    public comment.

  2. Lasthorseman

    and by design.

    I’m with Bob.

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