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.

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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. I think a federal grand jury system would be the best way to review congressional ethics lapses. Add a federal prosecutor to run the grand jury and coordinate the collection of information. Probably have it a rotating position from the existing federal prosecutors to prevent to much political power from accumulating.

  2. kip says:

    The intelligence committee needs this oversight in their work in intelligence. How CIA money is put through USAID to friends in NGOs and classifying the funding and ‘friend’ or ‘operations officers friend’ like Plame and the affect of those in the community on the intelligence committee by using classified meetings to complain about intelligence and an operations officer using their position at CIA to politically affect a political party or administration.

    No one is watching the intelligence committee and they have some serious ethical problems that have not been addressed and should be before an ‘ethics watcher’ is chosen to take this type of role rather than ‘pure ethical’ mistakes like gifts, etc.