Congressional Ethics in the House

Subscript is lucky to be based in a community where its members have high standards on how they are represented politically. How high these standards are is something Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, of the 11th district of New Jersey, is finding out.

After facing continuous pressure for face-time and demands for accountability from a well-organized coalition of members of his district, Representative Frelinghuysen, probably feeling a bit desperate, sought to use political pressure of his own. But he acted unwisely, and probably unethically. He highlighted to the board member of a local bank that one of the “ringleaders” of the activist group pressuring him, NJ 11th for Change, worked at the bank. The activist, Saily Avelenda, later resigned after facing some scrutiny from bank higher-ups.

Soon after Ms. Avelenda resigned from the bank, a private group (a nonprofit, Campaign for Accountability, with a mission to provide government accountability) filed a complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics.

What are the ethical standards of Congress? And how are they imposed? We did some searching to find out.

Because, here at Subscript, we always like to start at the Constitution, we find a relevant piece in the Legislative Powers part of the Constitution (Article I). It says Congress creates its own rules and punishes and expels its own members:

“Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member” (Section 5, clause 2).

So what has the House done on the ethics front?

Before 1967, the House of Representatives dealt with ethics issues on a case-by-case basis, sometimes forming an ad hoc committee (formed at the moment, specifically for that purpose) to investigate.

After some issues of wrongdoing in the 1960s, in 1967, the House created a Code of Conduct (applicable to all members, staff and officers of the House) and a Committee on Ethics (at the time called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct).

You can read the Code of Official Conduct, the rules House members must follow, here.

The Committee on Ethics enforces the Code of Conduct.  The Committee is responsible for:

  • Recommending processes for establishing or enforcing ethics standards;

  • Investigating allegations of misconduct (violations of the Code of Official Conduct or other law, rule, regulation or applicable standard);

  • Reporting to appropriate state/federal authorities about evidence of violations of law; and

  • Issuing advisory opinions to guide on House ethics standards.

A few changes to the House process were made over time, including, for example, a 1997 change of the way individuals who are not Members of the House file complaints. The complaints need to have a Member of the House certify in writing that the complaint was made in good faith and that it warrants consideration (in fact, the earlier rule was more restrictive).

In 2007 came a more significant change, with the creation of the first independent office to study House ethics. That means the people investigating the complaint would not be members of Congress. Then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner set up a special task force to review whether an outside office would be good. Yes, it decided.

As a result of the task force’s recommendation, the Office of Congressional Ethics was created in July 2008. Pelosi and Boehner jointly picked the first appointments of board members.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, now the first step in an ethics complaint on a Member of the House, decides after investigation whether or not to recommend that the House Committee on Ethics conduct further review. This is the office currently reviewing the complaint on Rep. Frelinghuysen.

The Citizens’ Guide provides a good summary of the current process.  And here is a listing of all Office of Congressional Ethics reports.

This report by Jacob Straus of the Congressional Research Service was very instructive in creating this post.