Congress will never regain the faith of ordinary Americans until its members win their trust. This appears to be a long way off.
I see no other way to read the results of a recent poll by the Center on Congress at Indiana University. When it asked 1,000 people whether members of Congress are “honest people of good character,” a rather stunning 42 percent said that most are not. Asked to grade Congress on holding its members to high ethical standards, 75 percent gave it either a D or an F.
This dismal view of members’ integrity, and of their interest in upholding the institution’s integrity, is especially striking given the importance the general public places on it. Asked which characteristic they consider to be most critical in a member of Congress, respondents to the poll rated honesty as by far the most important, surpassing a member’s positions on issues, religious convictions, good judgment, or ability to get things done.
Given the weight the public places on honesty, you’d think that members of Congress would be falling all over themselves to demonstrate they can put their houses in order. Yet the ethics committees of both the House and the Senate have been far too supine in recent years, even as an array of scandals hit their institutions.
More than a dozen members of Congress have come under federal investigation for everything from improper ties with lobbyists to bribery to using their influence for personal benefit. Recently, various members of Congress have been accused of getting special deals on their housing and of abusing the earmark process. Few outside observers would say that congressional ethics enforcement has worked, a sentiment shared by the public. Too often the standard pursued by congressional leaders has been, “Is it legal?” They have turned the Criminal Division of the Justice Department into the main ethics enforcer on Capitol Hill.
Passing judgment on one’s colleagues is hard, there’s no question about that. Not only do members of Congress depend on one another to be effective, and so try not to alienate one another, but they feel an entirely natural reluctance to judge the ethics of their peers in public.
This is a big reason for the one promising step taken by the House — but not the Senate — on this front: The establishment of an outside review board to investigate ethics complaints. This committee, made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans who are not sitting House members, will have the authority to look into complaints about misconduct, dismiss frivolous or politically motivated accusations, and recommend sanctions.
As with many things on Capitol Hill, the proof will be in the implementation. The new review board does not have subpoena power, and at least one of its Democrats and one of its Republicans have to agree that an investigation has merit before it can move forward, a recipe that could lead to partisan stalemate. Moreover, once an investigation starts, the board needs to have credible power to conduct its inquiries, a professional and impartial staff, and the political and financial resources to give it heft. We haven’t yet seen whether it will.
The fact that Congress has to look for help from an outside panel is disappointing, indicating that by itself it is unable to police its own members. But it is also a recognition of the political reality that the congressional ethics process has in recent decades become highly politicized.
Too often, complaints of impropriety were made not to strengthen the institution or uphold its integrity, but to weaken a political opponent and drive a member from office with ethics attacks when substantive attacks on his or her record didn’t work. When I was in the House, some of the “ethics and corruption” charges made against the leaders of both parties were accurate, some were greatly exaggerated, and some were simply false. The politicization of the ethics process was getting out of control.
One of the core goals of this outside commission is to reduce the political misuse of the ethics process, and that is certainly needed. Not punishing ethical misconduct has weakened the institution, but so has the misuse of the ethics process by members of both parties for purely political purposes. Both bring discredit on the institution and both contribute to the low opinion people have of members’ integrity.
Americans want members of Congress to avoid actual and apparent wrongdoing; they want them to act always to reflect credit on the institution. That basic standard of good conduct needs to be vigorously and fairly enforced. Anything less will continue to undercut Congress’s already imperiled legitimacy.
Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.