But since then, ethics committees in the House and Senate have been loath to discipline their own, moving to censure or reprimand just two lawmakers for improperly using their offices: Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) in 2010 and Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) in August. Letters of admonishment, a lesser punishment, have been sent out four times in the Senate. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) resigned last year while under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.
The pattern has prompted critics to euphemistically call the panels “protection committees,” according to interviews with nearly a dozen ethics experts and government watchdog groups.
“The House Ethics Committee and the Senate Ethics Committee are structured in a way to protect incumbents rather than to discipline them,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance and government ethics lobbyist for Public Citizen. “Members are overseeing each other, and they make sure that nothing comes back to haunt them.”
The chief counsel for the House committee declined to comment. The chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), said in a statement: “The committee’s record of serious and bipartisan investigations speaks for itself.”
Lawmakers also heavily on the committees for legal advice on a range of activities: accepting gifts, raising money or voting on legislation that might pose a conflict. Between 2007 and 2011, lawyers for the two committees sent at least 2,800 written opinions to lawmakers and provided e-mailed advice 6,500 times. Guidance has been given over the phone more than 40,000 times, records show.
The opinions are kept confidential, unless lawmakers choose to make them public. When they do, usually in response to challenges from political opponents or journalists, the released documents invariably support the actions the lawmakers had already taken.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), for instance, directed $1.2 million in tax dollars to expand the Corona Transit Center in his Southern California district. The center sits near seven rental properties the congressman owned.
After a report in the Los Angeles Times, Calvert sought an opinion in 2007 from the House Ethics Committee about the propriety of the earmarks. The committee ruled that any personal benefit to Calvert was “remote, inconsequential, or speculative.”
Calvert posted the opinion on his Web site under the headline: “Ethics Approval.”