Violation of the public trust: Why Senate and House ethics rules aren't worth the paper they're printed on

In Congress, each chamber makes up its own “ethics” rules. Staffers have to attend seminars so they know the complex maze of regulations, and Members have to be careful about how they spend their time, money, and other resources on campaign-related activity. The idea, of course, is to prevent misuse of public dollars and to prevent even the appearance of corruption.


Sometimes, however, circumstances arise that show the complete absurdity of these rules and their enforcement. Exhibit A comes from Politico:

Top Democrats are putting something special together for their Senate colleagues in tough races this year: a vulnerable-incumbent protection program.

At-risk senators will get to beef up their back-home cred by taking the lead on bills and amendments tailored to their campaigns. And they won’t be stuck in the back row at news conferences but will be in front of TV cameras and taking center stage during Senate debates.

It’s all part of an effort to blunt a furious Republican midterm campaign centered on attacking President Barack Obama and Democrats in the Senate who supported his signature health care law.

Democrats are not alone in this egregious violation of the public trust. From a Politico article in September 2012:

Congress is trying to shed its do-nothing reputation this week — at least for some politically vulnerable members.

Its brief schedule of legislating this month before it breaks until the November election is filled with bills sponsored by lawmakers running in tough races this fall.

For Rep. Allen West of Florida, it’s a bill that would force the Obama administration to detail how it would avoid big defense and domestic budget cuts next year. Rep. Michael Grimm of New York is pushing a resolution of support for peace in Sri Lanka. And Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois has scored two legislative victories: one bill to rein in lavish, taxpayer-funded conferences and another that aims to help travelers by loosening restrictions on checked baggage.

“It’s not about my race; it’s about what’s right,” West said Wednesday of his legislation, which was introduced just this week. “I help me in my race.”

Though Washington is staring down a number of critical policy issues this year — not least of which the so-called fiscal cliff — much of its agenda is consumed by hard-to-refuse bills that lawmakers can tout back home.


These are only the obvious examples. Sometimes, campaign work happens on Capitol Hill in the form of redundant legislation. As I wrote in 2012:

One additional note: often Members introduce legislation that has no chance of passing, or is duplicative, just to impress constituents. One example of this is H.R. 787, the No Social Security for Illegal Immigrants Act of 2011. Despite the important-sounding name, the fact is that no Social Security is allowed to go to illegal immigrants, so this legislation is truly useless – or worse than useless, since staffers had to create it, print it, and introduce it, meaning it cost taxpayers some small measure of their tax dollars.

A few other examples of where campaign efforts masquerade as work for the public:

“Morning hour” in the House, where Members can spout off on whatever they want for a minute, which creates nice YouTube videos and press releases, but rarely turns into legislation.

Constituent letters, which are supposed to be an explanation of a Member’s policies, but too often are merely so much spin that I would get dizzy writing them. And in the office I worked in, only people who supported the Congressman’s position got responses. If you disagreed with him, you were out of luck.

Almost every single press release, Facebook post, and Tweet that comes from a Member’s office.

Not that readers of Hot Air need it, but this is just more evidence of how the first goal of most Members of Congress is not doing what’s best for the public, but instead what’s best for keeping them in office. And while violations of ethics should bring about punishment by Ethics Committees, it’s pretty clear no that’s not going to happen.


Which leads to the question of just what will the public do about this abuse of the public trust, now that Politico has brought it to light (again)? Will we just sit on our hands, or will Senate and House leadership offices get calls, e-mails, Facebook comments, and Tweets demanding they stop using our tax dollars for cronyism?





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Ed Morrissey 4:41 PM on September 29, 2023