It didn’t all start with Watergate — the age of Washington ethical lapses, that is — and the ghosts of earlier scandals still haunt the halls of Congress.
Back in the ’60s following a Senate scandal of huge proportions, first the upper chamber of Congress and then the House decided to establish bipartisan committees to convince the public that lawmakers took ethics seriously. Until that time, allegations of ethics violations were handled by standing committees controlled by the majority party.
So when the nefarious dealings of the secretary to the Senate Democratic majority, Bobby Baker, burst into flames that would singe a dozen prominent senators, and ultimately send Baker to jail, the internal investigation was conducted by the Senate Rules Committee, which was heavily weighted with Democratic members and chaired by a Pennsylvania lawmaker who was unabashed in his efforts to downplay the scandal’s importance. There was more than enough evidence to support charges that the majority had whitewashed the affair, saving a number of its members from possible federal prosecution.
But when Democratic Sen. Thomas Dodd of Connecticut was accused of serious ethical violations several years later, the memories of all the bad publicity accruing from the Baker scandal was enough to bring about the formation of the new panel that was supposed to be immune from the political considerations that had turned the previous Rules Committee investigation into a disgrace. Dodd was the first member to face an ethics-committee inquiry and it ultimately led to his censure by the full Senate.
Ever since, any number of lawmakers have faced investigations of varying degrees of intensity by the ethics panels in both houses. It has become obvious that while the committees have improved the congressional image when it comes to questionable ethical practices, their actual success as a deterrent has been limited. The evidence of that has never been clearer than recently when a flurry of federal investigations centered on the illegal activities of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff produced several indictments. Among those prosecuted was the Republican chairman of the House Administration Committee, Robert Ney of Ohio, whose predecessor in the job, Democrat Wayne Hays of Ohio, also was involved in an earlier scandal and removed.
Now with the startling 35-count federal indictment charging Republican Rep. Rich Renzi of Arizona handed down just a few days ago and pending investigations of several other lawmakers, House leaders have renewed efforts to bolster congressional credibility. They want to establish an independent panel of non-members that would conduct preliminary investigations of suspected wrongdoings and recommend action to the ethics committee. The speaker of the House and the minority leader jointly would appoint the six-person panel in an effort to eliminate the taint of partisanship.
The Renzi investigation by the Justice Department has been going on for 16 months and finally resulted in a horrendous list of allegations, ranging from insurance fraud to extortion and money laundering. Republican leaders have asked Renzi, who had previously declared he would not seek re-election, to consider stepping down immediately.
Whether or not Congress can live under the watchful eye of outsiders is a major question. It has resisted all previous attempts. A major hurdle in the debate has been over the question of subpoena power. Without the ability to require members to turn over records and open their personal lives to inspection and compel testimony, the panel’s effectiveness would be severely limited. The result would be a fairly meaningless process designed more to improve the congressional image than to actually make strides in internal housecleaning.
While it sounds like a good idea, there are serious questions about whether Congress can conduct what would at times seem like a criminal prosecution. Furthermore, there would be the constant danger of politically motivated “inquiries” to the panel. Court challenges of subpoenas that would hamstring investigations inevitably would ensue in some matters. Cases that were determined to be actionable also would have to be recommended to the Justice Department. Still, the current situation has become almost intolerable and clearly needs adjusting. Following the Abramoff and other scandals, both the House and Senate tightened rules about dealings with lobbyists. But loopholes abound.
Bobby Baker, who shook down pages and collected illegal donations and spread them around at the indulgence of some of the most powerful men in congressional history, is long gone. His legacy obviously is not.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)