Congressional Ethics Reform
The Senate Ethics Committee has absolved Harry Reid of wrongdoing, saying he “did not break Senate rules in accepting free ringside seats at boxing matches from the Nevada Athletic Commission.” As the NYT explains, “Senate rules bar members from accepting gifts worth more than $50 but make an exception for anything paid by federal, state or local government.”
This decision was likely correct, as was the more controversial ruling absolving the House leadership in their handling of the Mark Foley scandal. While the conduct in both cases was questionable, there were probably no violations of the letter of the law. (Indeed, as I’ve noted before, I’m not sure Reid did anything wrong at all. Senators from Nevada tend to be amenable to the needs of sports betting and casino gambling, anyway.)
House Democrats might nonetheless be on the right course by considering the “creation of an independent ethics arm to enforce new rules on travel, lobbying, gifts and other issues that Democrats intend to put in place on taking power next month.” Asking Members to rule on each other’s conduct, let alone the ethical behavior of incredibly powerful committee chairmen or the Leadership, puts them in an incredibly difficult position. Further, peer evaluations are almost always easier than those by independent arbiters, since reciprocity is the norm and people need to work together in the years to come.
As Carl Hulse notes in his piece, however, similar proposals have come up before and been shot down. For one thing, the Constitution clearly gives each House near plenary powers in policing Member conduct. This means that “any independent group would have to work with the existing ethics committee” or otherwise be integrated into the Congressional apparatus. That’s not enormously difficult, though. They could function in a way similar to the Base Realignment and Closure groups, making recommendations that would be subject to an up-or-down vote by the House or Senate.