House Ethics Committee struggles to crack down on bad behavior

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

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

According to its members, none of these issues received careful scrutiny from the ethics committee, as the panel remained focused on more traditional corruption allegations.

And much of their time is spent policing chamber masks, as the committee has had to deal with violations of a rule requiring lawmakers to wear masks while on the floor of the House. Over the past three months, the committee issued 20 statements on the cases he handled and 14 of them involved issuing fines to Republicans who refused to wear a mask.

“Honestly, we’ve spent way too much time over the past year being the masked police. Luckily, that appears to be over, Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) said, noting that mask rules were recently lifted as the number of cases declined.

Now in his eighth year as the committee’s top Democrat, Deutch chooses his words carefully on ethical issues. He projects confidence that staff are focusing on the most important investigations, but acknowledges that masked policing is not his preferred use of committee resources.

“It’s a responsibility that has been given to the ethics committee,” he said. “Did it take a long time? Yes.”

If Deutch and other members of the ethics committee are successful, they could address more issues related to member behavior, but both political parties must agree to open an investigation. And party leaders seem to have given up hope that this panel can properly police such behavior.

Top Democrats initially called for an ethics investigation into Gosar’s violent online behavior, but within days they decided to skip that process and introduced a House-wide no-confidence resolution that included a punishment that was revoking his committee assignments.

Rep. Jackie Walorski (Ind.), the top Republican on the ethics committee, declined to comment on the panel’s highly sensitive work, but during the Gosar censorship debate, she pleaded with Democrats to refer the matter to their committee and let them conduct a review of Gosar’s behavior.

“The House Ethics Committee did not have time to consider this issue through the ethics committee process,” Walorksi said in a November speech. “And there is a process – non-partisan staff should have time to research and gather information – and committee members should have conversations before making a decision.”

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

After just a few terms, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) saw him as the type of straight shooter who could sit on the panel. He recalls that she instructed him to “uphold the integrity of the House”.

“It is an honor to be asked. I’m not sure I expected him to do it for eight years,” said Deutch, who announced he would step down later this year to take charge of the American Jewish Committee.

Outside ethics experts often criticize the panel both for its lack of transparency and for the slowness of investigations that can take years before there is a result. His subpoenas are issued secretly and sometimes cases are dismissed without public trial. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (DN.Y.), in 2010, was the last lawmaker to face a no-confidence recommendation from a committee, and James Traficant (D-Ohio), in 2002, was the last member expelled following ethics investigation.

The chairman cites a very basic math problem that limits the scope of the committee if a party decides they don’t want to investigate one of their own.

“The committee is also split, five to five, anything the committee does requires a bipartisan vote. We need six votes,” Deutch said.

During Deutch’s time on the committee, most investigations focused on some version of financial impropriety, such as using campaign funds for personal purchases, abuse of taxpayer-funded staff demanding that he run personal errands or the inappropriate use of annual funds given to each office. for official expenses.

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

A veteran Republican sees the House as too deeply divided along party lines for the committee to inflict real punishment on someone like Cawthorn.

“I wish I could see a system in place where, objectively, we could deal with members on either side of the aisle taking a serious step out of bounds,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark. ), who accused Cawthorn of making up stories about witnessing drug addiction. “But I’m not optimistic that we can get to anything like that because of the shirt-and-skin nature of politics as we know it today.”

Deutch, 55, found the hardest and most difficult phase of his ethics mandate a few years ago when the panel investigated a slew of sexual misconduct cases. Eight House members – five Republicans, three Democrats – resigned immediately or did not seek re-election.

“You realize that, if what you’re trying to do is maintain the integrity of the House, and you find in that moment so much very bad behavior, you realize how difficult it can sometimes be to do this work”, Deutch mentioned.

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

In one instance, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Arizona) reportedly asked two young people employed to serve as his surrogate mothers – the kind of terrible behavior that could never be expected with a separate rule prohibiting it. Franks, a prominent social conservative, resigned in disgrace rather than face the ethics committee, acknowledging his actions in his resignation letter.

The decision to bypass the panel in the Gosar case, going straight to the House floor, followed a decision in early 2021 to go immediately to the full House to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R- Ga.) Of his postings based on past violent rhetoric toward members.

Wild, the Pennsylvania Democrat, believes the actions created a “media circus” around the two Republicans – who have since worn the punishments as far-right political badges of honor.

A closed-door investigation by professional ethics staff that may uncover further controversial actions may serve the House better.

“This is exactly where we should be dealing with people who engage in threatening behavior towards other members, people who use slanderous language towards other members, and people who outright lie,” Wild said.

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

Cawthorn has a history 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 killed him. left paralyzed from the waist down. He recently called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug”.

“A lot of people say things here that are just wild 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 have touched 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 the fate of Cawthorn, first in the GOP primary.

Deutch thinks there’s room for the ethics committee to look at issues like this, if both parties are willing to take the first clause of the settlement seriously.

“If the members are doing some heinous things, that should definitely spark a conversation about article one,” Deutch said. “Again, the broadest interpretation of this rule is what is required.”

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