Conduct Unbecoming a Congressman

This story, now ancient by blogosphere standards, is suddenly garnering attention after the holiday lull:

Editorial: Rigging the Rules (WaPo, Dec. 31)

“A member . . . officer or employee of the House shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”

— Code of Official Conduct, Rule XXIII, Clause 1.

OF ALL THE ethical rules governing the conduct of House members, this is perhaps the most critical. It has been used to discipline members for taking bribes, fixing parking tickets and having sex with House pages. It formed the basis for reprimanding former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Perhaps most pertinent, it was the rule cited by the House ethics committee earlier this year in its serial admonishments of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for hosting a golf fundraiser for energy lobbyists on the eve of House consideration of the energy bill; offering to endorse the political campaign of a lawmaker’s son in exchange for the member’s vote on the prescription drug bill; and enlisting Federal Aviation Administration officials to hunt down fleeing Texas lawmakers who were foiling his redistricting plans for his home state.

No wonder House leaders want to eviscerate it.

Doing their customary end run around the ethics committee, House leaders are proposing to rewrite the provision as part of an overhaul of House rules for the incoming Congress. A draft circulated Wednesday to Republican members says the rule will be changed so that it won’t apply if a lawmaker has otherwise followed “applicable laws, regulations and rules.” Under the new rule, this catch-all provision — which has caught some pretty egregious conduct in the past — would be riddled with holes. No matter how slimy a lawmaker’s behavior, it couldn’t be deemed an ethical violation unless the ethics committee could cite a specific subparagraph of a specific regulation that was breached.

Editorial: Hefley stands up to The Hammer (Denver Post, Dec. 31)

Congressional leaders are rumored to be considering replacing Rep. Joel Hefley as House ethics committee chair, in order to protect Tom DeLay. Colorado Congressman Joel Hefley is sometimes a lone voice against Rep. Tom DeLay, the prickly Texas Republican who wields immense influence over Congress. Now, it appears some congressional Republicans may want to silence that voice of dissent by bouncing Hefley from his leadership post on the House Ethics Committee.

Chalk up another victory for The Hammer, as GOP majority leader DeLay is known, if that happens. But removing Hefley would be another boneheaded move by Republicans who want to protect DeLay rather than play by the rules. DeLay faces possible indictment for alleged campaign-finance violations.

As I noted weeks ago, when the House was contemplating changing the rule requiring party leaders under criminal indictment to step down, “The bottom line is that we shouldn’t change the rules in midstream for the benefit of someone in power.” In that case, however, I at least thought Hastert and company had a good motive for making a bad move, as they were trying to protect DeLay from an overzealous local prosecutor with a rather spotty reputation. Here, a rule change would be itself wrong in additon to a violation of a bedrock general principle.

In the case of people in positions of high public trust, there simply has to be a catch-all provision to allow ones peers to adjudge one’s conduct unworthy of continued association. As I military officer, I was subject to Article 133 of the UCMJ:

“Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.â€

Further, Article 134, the so-called “General Article,” provides

Though not specifically mentioned in this chapter, all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and crimes and offenses not capital, of which persons subject to this chapter may be guilty, shall be taken cognizance of by a general, special or summary court-martial, according to the nature and degree of the offense, and shall be punished at the discretion of that court.

This language is intentially vague, as the conduct of officers has to be above reproach. It is insufficient merely to avoid violating black letter laws: one must be honorable as adjudged by one’s peers.

Surely, this should be true for our highest elected officials as well.

Update (2156): Apparently, our lawmakers thought the better of this.

House GOP Reverses Course on Ethics Rules, Retaining Tough Standards and Reinstating Party Rule (AP)

House Republicans suddenly reversed course Monday, deciding to retain a tough standard for lawmaker discipline and reinstating a rule that would force Majority Leader Tom DeLay to step aside if indicted by a Texas grand jury. The surprise dual decisions were made by Speaker Dennis Hastert and by DeLay who asked GOP colleagues to undo the extreme act of loyalty they handed him in November. Then, Republicans changed a party rule, so DeLay could have retained his leadership post if indicted by the grand jury in Austin that charged three of the Texas Republican’s associates.

When Republicans began their closed-door meeting Monday night, leaders were considering a rules change that would have made it tougher to rebuke a House member for misconduct. The proposal would have required a more specific finding of ethical violations than is now required.
Republicans gave no indication before the meeting that the indictment rule would be changed. Even more surprising was DeLay’s decision to make the proposal himself.

Excellent news.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:


    I’m unconvinced we’re not playing intot he Democrats’ hands here. We’re letting them dictate according to rules that

    **in reality *they alone* decided upon, while they had that level of control.

    ** THey din’t follow and would not convict their own on when they got caught running afoul of them.

    (Notable exception: Jim Trafficant, whom, had he not been about spanking his fellow Democrats so often, would have been dfefended against enforcement of the rules, just like those before him)

    Your comment about not just following the black and white law, but actually being ethical, are well taken. LAws cannot define a culture, and laws do not define ethics. If the two don’t track, then it also stands to reason that someone can be ethical while NOT following the black and white in every single respect; this is a two way street.

    But of course you’ll never get the Democrats to deal with this point; they’ll duck it every time… at least until we’re unlucky enough for them to get back into power.

    What I’m suggesting is that the Democrats are using the black and white rulebook as a tool to beat the Republicans over the head with, sicne they’ve run out of other tools to do the job with.

    … and that if we bow to them here, we’re handing them the tools to do it with.

  2. James Joyner says:

    If the Democrats regain a majority in the House and then act dishonorably–as they tended to do in the last years of their long reign–then the GOP should call them on it and make it a campaign issue. That’s what Gingrich and Co. did in 1994. But, to do that, the Republicans have to act honorably when they’re in office.

    DeLay has already been called for indiscretions by the Ethics Committee. Since he’s the apparent reason this question came up in either case, I’d say one man is certainly not worth sacrificing our principles. Certainly not DeLay.

  3. Chip says:

    “the Democrats are using the black and white rulebook as a tool to beat the Republicans over the head with, sicne they’ve run out of other tools to do the job with.”

    Yeah, well. If they can’t obey their own damn rules they deserve to be beat about the head and shoulders with the rule book.

    If you don’t want to be called a crook, quit acting crooked. They just want to define crooked down.

  4. Bithead says:


    Objection; n both your comments assume facts not entered yet.
    First, define ethical,
    Secone defioine the context of the acts he’s accused of,

    THEN tell us how his actions went outside these.

    I’ve seen none of it, here.

  5. McGehee says:

    Objection: relevance.

    The issue here is not directly dependent on any charges that may have been alleged against Tom DeLay or anyone else. Therefore substantiation or lack thereof regarding such charges has no bearing.

  6. anjin-san says:


    Not sure I am following you. How is it the democrats fault that DeLay is slimy?

    James is certainly correct. Politicians of both parties at this level should be held to a HIGHER standard then that on the books. We have no shortage of corruption & abuse of power in both parties.

    Those in power are quite happy to have us engage in finger pointing and partisan bickering while they rake in the chips.

  7. Bithead says:

    You’re assuming he is slimy… on what basis?
    Because the Democrats (and their mouths in the press) say so? Sorry, given their history I need a bit more. Seems to me they have a motivated self-interest here to label him as such even when he’s not.

    Further, I will sound a note of caution, here, that given their history, the Democrats have no moral authority whatever in the matter.