The knock on the door signaled the collapse of a house of cards--an agreement that House ethics committee Republicans thought they had with Democrats to end the long and tortuous investigation of Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Alerted with just moments to spare, the Republicans in Chairwoman Nancy Johnson’s inner sanctum switched on the television high on the wall to watch a news conference by committee Democrats. In stunned silence, they watched the Democrats protest plans for the final act of the drama, the end game constructed so delicately at 1:45 that very morning.
No longer could there be any doubt that the politics of the House of Representatives also was the politics of ethics. Forget any pretense of lawmakers checking their partisanship at the door; a system where House members carry the thankless task of judging their peers had fallen apart and everyone knew it.
This was the latest painful airing of Congress’ dirty linen--a spectacle more wrenching than the fall from grace of House Speaker Jim Wright, the House bank overdraft scandal, the “Keating Five” case or Sen. Bob Packwood’s resignation after findings of sexual misconduct.
It was a staffer for ethics chairwoman Johnson, the Connecticut Republican, who rapped on the inner office door the afternoon of Jan. 9. The panel’s five Republicans sat on her government-issue sofas, regretting the deal she had struck with the Democrats well after midnight. Ahead of them were several days, maybe a week, of televised hearings to bash Gingrich for admitted ethical misdeeds.
Now, the Democrats were demanding postponement of the scheduled Jan. 21 vote to punish the speaker--until the committee’s special counsel completed a written report on Gingrich’s conduct.
Suddenly, the mood turned as dark as the black leather sofas. “It’s over,” Rep. David Hobson of Ohio said. “They just blew the deal.” Johnson, under intense pressure from fellow Republicans for allowing the hearings, fumed that she was betrayed--and canceled the hearings. The Democrats, who said they never had agreed to the Jan. 21 vote, felt Johnson had stabbed special counsel James M. Cole in the back--since he wanted until Feb. 4 to finish his report.
The bad feelings of Jan. 9 did not go away after the Gingrich case ended with a one-day hearing, and a punishment that included a reprimand and a $300,000 penalty. In fact, the blowup may have been the inevitable low point of an ethics system that has become increasingly political over the last decade.
But Congress’ struggles with the ethics process goes far beyond recent times.
In fact, the root of the problem goes back to language in the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to police the behavior of its members. Members of each house are forced to judge the same peers they work with every day on legislation. The success of the system rests on the ability of lawmakers serving on ethics panels to sublimate their friendships and alliances.
The process is supposed to be bipartisan, and that’s why the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct--the ethics committee’s formal name--and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics have equal membership from both parties.
But the balance also can lead to stalemate, and has led to political moments in the investigations of Packwood, the scrutiny of check overdrafts at the House bank, and the Senate’s probe of five senators who went to bat with regulators for a key figure in the savings and loan scandal--Charles Keating Jr.
Over the last year, the Associated Press has interviewed current and former members of the House and Senate ethics committees--and outside experts--about Congress’ ability to police its members. None of them said the system is working well.
Some of those interviewed described conversations inside closed meetings. In all cases, they were either witnesses or participants to the proceedings.
“These things are almost increasingly impossible to handle,” Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar, said of recent ethics cases. “It is just so politicized.
“Clearly the charges, quite apart from the merits, also become the means by which the larger electoral campaign is waged,” he said. “You have an arms race going on here on ethics charges. Can you imagine anyone wanting to serve on that committee in the future?”
The problem is most acute in the House, because the Gingrich case is so recent. House leaders said they’ll appoint a bipartisan task force this month in an attempt to restore faith in Congress’ version of a grand jury investigation and a trial. The most oft-mentioned proposal: a financial penalty for members found to have submitted frivolous complaints.
During the Gingrich case, a band of Democrats led by Minority Whip David Bonior filed a steady stream of complaints against the speaker. Republicans and conservative supporters countered with complaints against Democratic leaders.
“You take out one of ours, we’ll take out one of yours, that kind of attitude is out there,” said Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.).
It was the Keating case that started the recent commingling of politics and ethics. Two senators recognized as American heroes, former prisoner of war John McCain and pioneering astronaut John Glenn, were, in effect, held as political hostages to the system.
McCain was the only Republican among five senators in the dock for assisting Keating--a savings and loan owner known for his political largesse--in his fights with federal regulators.
The Senate ethics committee’s special counsel in the case, Robert Bennett, concluded that evidence did not support keeping McCain and Glenn, an Ohio Democrat, in the case. But when Democrats refused to dismiss McCain, Republicans wouldn’t exonerate Glenn.
McCain, who spent 5 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison, will never forget March 12, 1990. He sat in a secluded room of the U.S. Capitol, sensing he was a political prisoner of committee Democrats.
Inside, McCain’s eyes were moist as he defended not only his actions but his honor. He spoke of his personal moral standards, his family’s military tradition, his love of country. “My very life is associated with my reputation and my honor,” McCain remembers thinking. “In that sense, this was as bad as Vietnam.”
Former Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), who was vice chairman of the ethics committee during the Keating case, wrote in his Senate memoirs: “The Packwood affair was different from the Keating investigation, in that one turned on sex and the other on money, but . . . both became intensely partisan issues and revealed the Senate’s great difficulty in carrying out its constitutional duty to police its members.”
In the Packwood case, the partisan tension flared one day in July 1995. The committee’s three Republicans and the GOP-run Senate had opposed a move on the Senate floor by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to force televised public hearings on Packwood’s sexual misconduct.
On this day, the committee sat in stunned silence as Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)--the only woman on the committee--about Boxer’s intentions.
“I want you to tell her [Boxer] if she does that [forces hearings], we will offer amendments for hearings” on past conduct of some Democrats, McConnell said. “It will work both ways. I want you to tell her that right away.”
But no ethics investigation has had greater political consequences than the scandal at the now-defunct House bank. Hundreds of current and former lawmakers from both parties had written checks on insufficient funds, but Republicans saw the issue as a blot on Democratic stewardship of the House.
Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) signaled Republican intentions when he showed up on the floor in 1991 with a paper bag over his head. Radio talk show hosts, egged on by the Republicans, picked up the issue. When members went home, they always were asked how many bad checks they wrote.
The ranking Republican on the ethics committee then was Rep. Jim Hansen of Utah. In the spring of 1992, as increasing numbers of House members worried about their political careers, Hansen imagined he was once again a Mormon lay bishop hearing confessions.
“Admit you’re wrong,” Hansen advised them.
The House Democratic leadership had tried several times to contain the scandal, eventually sending the problem to the ethics committee with a mandate to identify “abusers” of the bank.
The final chapter came with the disclosure of about 300 current and former lawmakers who wrote overdrafts and the replacement of one-fourth of the House. Many were defeated or chose to retire because of their overdrafts.
“The climate with respect to Congress changed and people were less tolerant and less forgiving about these kinds of practices,” said former Rep. Matthew McHugh, a New York Democrat who headed the bank probe.