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House Ethics Committee struggles to crack down on bad behavior

The panel has remained focused on more traditional corruption allegations — and being the chamber’s mask police

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence on Feb. 6, 2019. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) can cite almost verbatim the first rule of congressional conduct.

“Members shall behave at all times in a manner that reflects creditably upon the House,” he said, unprompted, during a Wednesday interview, forgetting just one extra “shall” in the opening clause of the House’s Code of Official Conduct.

As chairman of the House Ethics Committee, Deutch would like to see a bit more vigorous policing of behavior that doesn’t break specific rules but clearly brings discredit to the institution.

The past year has brought a number of examples: Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) claimed in a podcast interview in late March that respected Washington leaders had invited him to an orgy and that he had watched them do cocaine, which House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said was a lie. Last November Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) posted a violent animated video depicting the killing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and a violent attack on President Biden. And last April Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) encouraged a crowd to “get more confrontational” on the street if the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd was found not guilty.

None of these matters have received scrutiny from the Ethics Committee, according to its members, as the panel has remained focused on more traditional corruption allegations.

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And a large chunk of their time is being spent being the chamber’s mask police, as the committee has had to handle violations of a rule requiring lawmakers to wear a mask while on the House floor. Over the last three months the committee has issued 20 statements about cases it was handling and 14 of them involved doling out fines to Republicans who refused to wear a mask.

“Quite honestly, we have spent way too much time over the last year having to be the mask police. Thankfully that seems to be over,” Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) said, noting that mask rules were recently lifted as case numbers decreased.

Now in his eighth year as the top Democrat on the committee, Deutch chooses his words carefully on ethics matters. He projects confidence that staff are focused on the most important investigations but acknowledges the mask police is not his favorite use of committee resources.

“That was a responsibility that was given to the Ethics Committee,” he said. “Has it taken a lot of time? Yes.”

If Deutch and other Ethics Committee members had their way, they could take up more matters related to member behavior, but both political parties have to agree to initiate a probe. And party leaders seem to have abandoned any hope this panel could properly police such behavior.

Top Democrats initially called for an ethics probe into Gosar’s violent online behavior, but within days they decided to skip that process and brought a censure resolution to the full House floor that included a punishment that revoked his committee assignments.

Rep. Jackie Walorski (Ind.), the top Republican on the Ethics Committee, declined to talk about the highly sensitive work of the panel, but during the debate over Gosar’s censure she pleaded with Democrats to refer the issue to their committee and let them conduct a review of Gosar’s behavior.

“The House Ethics Committee has had no time to consider this matter through the Ethics Committee process,” Walorksi said in a November speech. “And there is a process — the nonpartisan staff should have the time to research and gather information — and the committee members should have conversations before making a decision.”

Deutch found public service early in life as a Harry S. Truman scholar at the University of Michigan, where he also earned his law degree. After years as a real estate lawyer in South Florida, he won a state Senate seat in 2006 and then a special election to his House seat in 2010.

After just a couple of terms, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) saw him as the type of straight shooter who could serve on the panel. He remembers her charging him with “upholding the integrity of the House.”

“It’s an honor to be asked. I’m not sure I expected it to do it for eight years,” said Deutch, who announced he will resign later this year to take over the American Jewish Committee.

Outside ethics experts often criticize the panel for both a lack of transparency and slow-moving investigations that can take years before there’s any outcome. Its subpoenas are issued secretly and sometimes cases are closed with no public reckoning. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), in 2010, was the last lawmaker to face a committee censure recommendation, and James Traficant (D-Ohio), in 2002, was the last member expelled following an ethics investigation.

The chairman cites a very basic math problem that limits the committee’s scope if one party decides it doesn’t want to investigate one of its own.

“The committee is evenly divided, five-five, anything that the committee does requires a bipartisan vote. We need six votes,” Deutch said.

In Deutch’s time on the committee, most investigations have centered on some version of financial impropriety, such as using campaign funds for personal purchases, abusing taxpayer-funded staff with demands that they run personal errands or inappropriate use of the annual funds given to each office for official expenditures.

In August 2020 the panel unanimously issued a letter admonishing Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), citing the first clause of the conduct code, for threatening tweets he directed at Michael Cohen in 2019, on the eve of testimony by the former lawyer for Donald Trump.

One veteran Republican views the House as too deeply split along party lines for the committee to hand out any real punishment to someone like Cawthorn.

“I would love to be able to see a system in place where, in an objective way, we could deal with members on either side of the aisle that take a serious step out of bounds,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), who has accused Cawthorn of making up stories about witnessing drug abuse. “But I’m not optimistic we can come to something like that because of the shirts-and-skins nature of politics as we know it today.”

Deutch, 55, found the toughest, most difficult phase of his ethics tenure a few years ago when the panel investigated a slew of sexual misconduct cases. Eight House members — five Republicans, three Democrats — either resigned immediately or did not seek reelection.

“You realize that, if what you’re trying to do is uphold the integrity of the House, and you find at that point so much really bad behavior, you realize how tall an order it can sometimes be to do that work,” Deutch said.

In those #MeToo cases, the panel often cited that broad first clause of the code of conduct as grounds for its jurisdiction — an approach that could be applied to other cases, including accusations that Cawthorn lied.

In one case, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) allegedly asked two young female staffers to serve as surrogate mothers for him — the type of terrible behavior that could never be foreseen with a distinct rule prohibiting it. Franks, a prominent social conservative, quit in disgrace rather than facing the Ethics Committee, acknowledging his actions in his resignation letter.

The decision to bypass the panel in the Gosar matter, going straight to the House floor, followed an early 2021 move to go immediately to the full House to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from her assignments based on past violent rhetoric toward members.

Wild, the Democrat from Pennsylvania, believes those actions created a “media circus” around the two Republicans — both of whom have since worn those punishments as badges of political honor on the far right.

A behind-closed-doors investigation led by the professional ethics staff, with the potential to reveal new controversial actions, might better serve the House.

“It’s exactly where we should be dealing with people who are engaging in threatening behavior toward other members, people who are using slanderous language about other members, and people who are just outright lying,” Wild said.

Womack is so outraged by Cawthorn’s “terrible honor violation” that he considers it almost worthy of expulsion. “Is an individual, who has that predisposition,” he asked, “are they congressional material?”

Cawthorn has had a pattern of making false or outlandish claims, including that he was armed during the Capitol riot in January 2021 and that a friend left him for dead in the car crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He recently referred to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a “thug.”

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“A lot of people say things up here that are just kind of crazy talk. Most of the things that are said are more a reflection on the individual saying it,” Womack said, explaining why Cawthorn’s latest actions struck such a nerve. “In this particular case what he said was a reflection on all of us.”

Ultimately, he said, voters in western North Carolina will determine Cawthorn’s fate, first in the GOP primary.

Deutch thinks there is room for the ethics panel to take up issues like this, if both sides are willing to just take the first clause of the rule book seriously.

“If members are doing things that are abhorrent, then it should certainly trigger a conversation about clause one,” Deutch said. “Again, the broadest interpretation of that rule is what is required.”