WASHINGTON -- The pursuit of power on Capitol Hill is often like a giant game of musical chairs in which congressmen scramble for seats on the most influential committees. But there are two powerful panels in Washington on which no one wants to serve: the House and the Senate ethics committees.
Rendering judgment on their colleagues' conduct, committee members can damage or destroy political careers. In a field where making friends is vital, committee members are everyone's potential enemy.
Last week, the House panel used its authority once again. A subcommittee concluded that Speaker Newt Gingrich had misled the committee during its investigation of whether a college course he had taught complied with tax laws -- and thereby humbled the Republican leader.
Established in 1967, the U.S. House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is a six-member tribunal. Democratic and Republican leaders are supposed to choose three representatives who they think will be objective and remain above partisan politics.
"If someone wants to serve on the committee, they probably shouldn't be on it," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat and ethics panel member.
During the 1970s and 1980s, complaints often focused on members of Congress accused of clear-cut violations such as taking bribes, misusing campaign funds or having sexual relations with pages. But in recent years, complaints have become more technical, more political -- and more numerous. As Capitol Hill has grown more partisan, ethics complaints have consumed more and more of Congress' attention.
Barbara Sinclair, a political science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, cites several reasons for the change: As members of the minority, Republicans saw ethics complaints as a tool to discredit Democrats. Politicians also found an ally in an increasingly competitive press corps with a nose for scandal. And as policy differences between the parties widened, both sides have been more apt to demonize the other.
"If you really do think your opponents are horrible people who are going to really do damage to the country, it's probably easier to convince yourself that your opponent has done things that are wrong," Sinclair says.
Some say the shift came in 1989 when the House ethics committee charged Democratic Speaker Jim Wright with going around limits on outside income by selling copies of his memoirs in bulk. Wright resigned. The man behind the accusations: a political flame-thrower named Newt Gingrich.
Others point to the 1992 House bank scandal, in which 24 members abused their privileges at a congressional bank and wrote hundreds of bad checks. The House ethics committee required the members' names be made public; 10 of the 24 lost their next election.
When an ethics committee finds someone has broken the rules, it can recommend punishments generally ranging from reprimand to expulsion.
Reprimands can be damaging but not necessarily fatal. In 1990, the House committee found that Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, had fixed 33 parking tickets for himself and his boyfriend who ran a gay prostitution ring out of Frank's apartment.
But Frank said he didn't know about the prostitution ring, admitted to having the tickets fixed and paid them. In part because the charges were related more to his personal than political life, Frank was re-elected.
"I don't think a whole lot of people could have survived," Sinclair says. "Basically, his constituents just like him."
When the charges focus on professional conduct, the stakes are much higher. Expulsions are rare, but that is largely because most senators and House members would rather resign than face the humiliation of being thrown out of Congress. Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican, quit last year after the Senate Select Committee on Ethics recommended that he be forced to leave for continually groping and kissing women against their will.
If being the subject of an ethics inquiry can hurt your career, so can serving on the committee. Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican who chairs the House panel, was accused by Democrats of slowing the Gingrich investigation to avoid embarrassing him before Election Day. Johnson, who had consistently won elections by large margins, in the past election only squeaked past a challenger who had never held public office -- the narrow margin blamed on her committee work.
And serving on the committee can be alienating. During the House bank scandal, one member under investigation took to the floor to accuse Cardin and other committee members of trying to make a name for themselves.
"There have been times in the cloak room [the House lounge] where it has been very lonely," Cardin says. "And the only person who would come up to me was another member of the ethics committee."
Plus, the work itself is often tedious and unrewarding. When a congressman gets federal money for a new road or bridge, he or she can send out a news release to let constituents know what is being done for them. But working on an ethics investigation, which is private, carries no political benefits. Committee members often must do their own legal research and write their own memos.
"I have spent more time on ethics than any other committee in Congress," says Cardin, who also serves on the Ways and Means and Budget committees. "Investigations can easily take 30, 40, 50 hours a week."
When the House began disciplining its own, things were a lot less complicated and standards of conduct not quite so high. The first case came in 1798, when Vermont Rep. Matthew Lyon spat on Connecticut Rep. Roger Griswold, who had cast aspersions on Lyon's military record.
Lyon wrote a letter of apology.
But after opening prayers one day on the House floor, Griswold struck back with a cane. Lyon grabbed some fireplace tongs and a brawl ensued.
The House quickly adjourned.
The next year, the House tried to expel Lyon after he was convicted in a Vermont court of being "a notorious and seditious person." But when it was noted that the people of Vermont had returned him to office, the motion to expel failed.
Pub Date: 12/24/96