Rep. Dixon Has Job No One Wants : Ethics Panel a Thankless but Necessary House Body

Times Staff Writer

In the perk-conscious world of Congress, one can tell a lot about a committee’s status by its offices. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which Friday began a highly sensitive investigation into the affairs of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), labors in a small warren in a musty corner of the Capitol basement.

The committee, the House’s “ethics police,” is a body many members of Congress would just as soon not have, but one they know they cannot do without. Heading the panel--the job of Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles)--is a post almost no one in the House wants.

The chairmanship was “a job I would not have sought,” Dixon said in an interview after taking the post in 1985, but “I felt I had a responsibility.”

‘Thankless’ Task

It is “a thankless” task, said another Californian, Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), a longtime friend of Dixon. “You have to judge your colleagues, your peers, and you learn a lot of things about your colleagues you’d rather not know.”

The awkwardness of the panel’s role is reflected in its record. After being created in 1967 to provide a mechanism for enforcing the Constitution’s command that the House judge the “qualifications of its own members,” the group was virtually moribund for its first eight years.

Since then, it has fluctuated between periods of activity and timidity.

During the federal investigations of influence-buying by South Korean lobbyist Tongsun Park and then during the Abscam hearings, analysts gave the committee fairly high marks for aggressiveness in taking action against members who were implicated.

But, in the early 1980s, the committee repeatedly failed to discipline House members even after concluding that they had violated House ethics rules. In several cases of misuse of funds, all involving Democrats, including Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) and James Weaver (D-Ore.), the committee imposed no penalties after allowing the congressmen to pay back the money.

In an angry outburst, Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer accused the panel of an “abdication of its responsibilities.”

Rules Seen as a Problem

Critics concede that part of the committee’s problem is the rules it has been given to enforce. Confused, sometimes archaic and loosely written, the ethical standards are often bent, if not broken, complicating the task of deciding which offenses merit disciplinary action. That can range from a public reprimand to expulsion from the House.

Also, the committee has few resources. It employs only one full-time investigator, who can be caught in the political crosscurrents created among the panel’s six Democratic and six Republican members.

There is little encouragement to act aggressively. The House “is a collegial body that runs on relationships,” one senior aide said. “A lot of guys don’t feel they were sent to Washington to judge their colleagues.”

Recently, the committee attracted attention by reprimanding Rep. Austin J. Murphy (D-Pa.) for letting someone else cast votes for him in House roll calls and putting a “ghost employee” on his payroll. It recommended the expulsion of Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), who last year was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for accepting an illegal gratuity.

Hired Outside Attorney

To bolster its credibility, the committee has, in its major cases, hired a prominent outside attorney to serve as special counsel. It has not indicated whether it plans to do so in the Wright case.

But critics contend that no effective self-policing system is possible until Congress toughens and clarifies the ethical standards prescribed for its members. A broader measure based on the Ethics in Government Act, which applies to executive branch members, has been passed by the House and is pending in the Senate.

For Dixon, 53, presiding over this committee is only the latest in a series of unpleasant but important assignments that he has carried out for the Democratic leadership and which have given him considerable respect among his colleagues. He has also handled other posts, such as serving a term as head of the congressional Black Caucus.

After graduating from law school in 1967, Dixon went to work for then-state Sen. Mervin Dymally and in 1972 ran successfully for the state Assembly. There he became head of the Democratic caucus and an ally of then-Speaker and now Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy and of the powerful political organization headed by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City).

In 1978, those allies backed Dixon for a congressional seat in a three-way primary that turned into a bitter battle among powerful political factions in the city. He won that fight and has been comfortably ensconced ever since in his district, which ranges from racially mixed Culver City through mostly black, middle class Inglewood and surrounding areas of Los Angeles.