Our subject today is how the U.S. House of Representatives does ethics. Putting the two concepts – the Congress and ethics – in the same sentence suggests it will end in a punch line, the kind of comedy that makes you laugh until you cry.
If only the real thing weren’t such a joke!
Let’s start with a crucial distinction, between illegal and unethical. Illegal is what is wrong by law. The Justice Department deals with that.
The question before the House Ethics Committee is, what’s unethical? As the textbooks have it, what goes against, not the legal codes, but a society’s agreed upon code of conduct. In other words, the reason there is a House Ethics infrastructure is to uphold a standard of behavior.
That’s what Florida Republican Congressman and Fox News regular Matt Gaetz says Speaker Nancy Pelosi breached when she dramatically tore President Trump’s State of the Union speech to shreds on national television. He’s filed an Ethics Committee complaint. Rude behavior, Madame Speaker? Sure, but unethical?
Unethical was what Representative Gaetz did that made news even beyond the Fox and Breitbart channels. The day before Trump’s fixer/lawyer Michael Cohen was to testify before Congress about crimes he’d committed with or for Donald Trump, Gaetz threatened Cohen with public exposure of an alleged extra-marital affair.
After Gaetz was accused of a crime – witness tampering – he withdrew his Tweet-threat, but, still he took a public spanking for it. Not, of course from the House Ethics Committee, but from the Florida Bar Association. What you did, hastily withdrawn or not, “was not consistent with the high standards of our profession,” the Bar Association said, and did “not reflect favorably on you as a member.”
Gaetz’s abuse of the House Ethics process, wasting its time with a frivolous complaint against Pelosi, meant to fill the bottom of the Fox news-cycle, is standard operating procedure, but a newer abuse could be more destructive.
More and more frequently, Congresspeople accused of ethical violations are simply stiffing the system, refusing to provide documents or testimony from themselves or their staffs to the Office of Congressional Ethics. I’m tempted to call it “Trumping” the system, except that this kind of flat defiance of House ethics investigators started before he took office and is being used by left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans alike.
Robert Faturechi covers money in politics. At ProPublica, he has reported on self-dealing by political consultants, industry lobbyists blocking safety standards, corporate donors targeting state elections officials and political committees running afoul of the law.
Before joining ProPublica, he was a reporter at The Los Angeles Times, where his work exposed inmate abuse, cronyism, secret cop cliques and wrongful jailings at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In 2013, he used an unprecedented cache of confidential personnel records to show the agency knowingly hired dozens of cops with histories of serious misconduct. His stories helped lead to sweeping reforms at the nation’s largest jail system, federal indictments of deputies and the resignation of the sheriff.
Faturechi grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA in 2008. He now lives in New York.