By Rachel Rose Hartman and Holly Bailey
Every two years around this time, a common mantra repeated by Democrats and Republicans alike makes its way through Capitol Hill: This will be the Congress that finally cleans up Washington.
"We're going to drain the swamp," Nancy Pelosi vowed in 2006, echoing congressional leaders before her. And just last week, Eric Cantor, the No. 2 GOP leader in the House, promised virtually the same thing as the Republicans prepare to take the House majority. "We will drain the swamp rather than learn to swim with the alligators," Cantor declared.
But the conclusion this week of the House Ethics Committee investigation of New York Democrat Charlie Rangel confirms what virtually everyone in Washington knows about the House's interest in cracking down on ethics: It's a joke.
After two years of investigation by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (the official name of the ethics committee), Rangel was sentenced to a slap on the wrist for 11 separate ethics violations. It's a humiliating blow to the vanity of a 20-term lawmaker, perhaps, but Rangel won't have to resign from Congress or face penalties beyond paying back taxes on the charges. Rangel, like those before him, will benefit from a system designed entirely by Congress to protect its own.
Democrats and Republicans alike have worked for years to undermine the House ethics process. And as a result, the ethics committee has long functioned in a state of political stalemate--in part because both parties insisted on an equal number of representatives on the committee, which ensured a deadlock.
During the ethics committee's 2004 investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), GOP leaders threatened to defund the committee. The panel ultimately found DeLay guilty of several ethics violations -- but it was an indictment in Texas for violating campaign finance laws, rather than the committee's punishment, that drove him from Congress.
And the dynamic that played out in DeLay's case is not uncommon. The House may recommend that a member be stripped of a committee assignment when a member's activities suggest the taint of corruption, but other than that, a lawmaker who appears to be connected to corruption usually just continues business as usual. The House, in short, protects its members.
[Photos: See more of Rep. Rangel]
When the FBI found $90,000 in bribes hidden in Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's freezer in 2006, the House Ethics Committee voted to open an investigation, but didn't appear to do anything. It wasn't until a year later that the House Ethics Committee announced an official investigation--a proceeding that occurred after federal prosecutors had already indicted Jefferson on 16 charges related to corruption.
In other cases, the law has acted well before the ethics committee got around to pursuing an inquiry. Florida GOP Rep. Mark Foley resigned from Congress in September 2006, when news broke that Foley had sent sexually suggestive instant messages to teenage boys. The ethics committee then opened an investigation that found Dennis Hastert and other Republican leaders negligent in the case, but not in violation of House rules. The panel did not recommend any sanctions.
An additional frustration for watchdog groups is that the committee operates in secrecy and has a policy of not commenting on any ongoing investigations.
In 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to change the committee's high-secrecy profile by leading the charge in creating an Office of Congressional Ethics to strengthen the House ethics process, increase transparency, and serve as a link between the ethics committee and the public. But as we've seen in Rangel's case, complaints surrounding the ethics process continue.
The committee has one more trial on its plate before the session concludes: A House proceeding was scheduled to open Nov. 29 for California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, who faces three ethics charges connected to her advocacy for a bank with ties to her husband. But the committee announced Friday that new materials have prompted them to refer her case back to the investigative subcommittee.
Beyond that, however, the House ethics process seems likely to revert to the earlier status quo as the majority switches to Republican control.
Incoming Speaker John Boehner has already begun talk of defunding the Office of Congressional Ethics, which he opposed from the start, arguing it's an unnecessary expense and has been an ineffective body. Boehner's opponents argue his plans could move the House backward in the ongoing fight to combat corruption in Washington.
NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect Friday's developments in Maxine Waters' ethics trial.
(Photo of hearing with Rangel, far right: Getty Images/Mark Wilson)