In a Season of Scandals, Ethics Panels Are on Sidelines

Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), left, and Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who head the House ethics panel, feuded for months over makeup of committee staff.
Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), left, and Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who head the House ethics panel, feuded for months over makeup of committee staff. (Hastings Office Via Associated Press)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 5, 2005

The House ethics committee, the panel responsible for upholding the chamber's ethics code, has been virtually moribund for the past year, handling only routine business despite a wave of federal investigations into close and potentially illegal relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists.

With a California congressman headed to prison for accepting bribes and several others under investigation for accepting lavish gifts and money from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, one might expect the House committee to have a lot of work to do.

But the committee's five Republican and five Democratic members have not opened a new case or launched an investigation in the past 12 months. It took months to hire a new chief of staff, and he still is not in place. Nor has the panel hired a full complement of investigators.

"I would say by the early part of January, we will be fully organized -- or should be really close to that," said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), the committee's ranking Democrat. By then, he added, the panel "will be in a position to fulfill all of our responsibilities."

The committee's last formal action of note was its recommendation to admonish former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for the second and third times in 2004. Since then, the committee has been crippled.

Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) was ousted as the ethics chairman early this year by House GOP leaders. His successor, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), has been slow to take up the reins because of disputes between Republicans and Democrats over the panel's rules. Hastings and Mollohan also feuded for months about the makeup of the professional staff.

To critics, the long delay is unforgivable. Government watchdog groups say they are appalled that ethics overseers in both the House and Senate have done nothing in the face of a growing number of ethics inquiries against members of Congress. The vacuum, they say, has tacitly encouraged lawmakers to behave improperly and has helped produce the long slide in public trust of Congress.

"There is no ethics enforcement in Congress today, and it's inexcusable," sad Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative monitor of government ethics.

"No matter what level of corruption the members of Congress engage in, the ethics committees do nothing," agreed Melanie Sloan, executive director of the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It's a national embarrassment."

So far this year, at least seven lawmakers have been indicted, have pleaded guilty or are under investigation for improper conduct such as conspiracy, securities fraud and improper campaign donations. In the past two weeks alone, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) resigned from Congress and pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy, and public relations executive Michael Scanlon admitted his role in a conspiracy to try to bribe a congressman.

In addition, The Washington Post and other publications have reported that a host of lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats, senators and members of the House -- are being examined by the Justice Department for their connections to Abramoff, a lobbyist who, with his former partner Scanlon, billed Indian tribes $82 million in fees that may have been put to improper uses.

And that's not all. The spouses of lawmakers and their aides-turned-lobbyists -- including those of DeLay -- are also under scrutiny as part of the Abramoff scandal.

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