Congress unwilling to clean its own house

The Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress’ ethics committees are in no hurry to investigate crimes of thier own despite the growing revelations about the
favors that lobbyist Jack Abramoff won for clients and the largesse he
arranged for lawmakers.

Instead, they remain on the sidelines.

House committee, stymied by partisan disagreements, launched no
investigations in 2005 even after former House Majority Leader Tom
DeLay, R-Texas, requested an inquiry into his foreign travel arranged
by Abramoff.

The lack of commitment to investigate issues about
lawmakers’ conduct with Abramoff, his lobbying team and his clients is
raising anew the question of whether Congress adequately can discipline
its own.

“There have always been questions about whether Congress
can police itself,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington
University in St. Louis who specializes in ethics. “The situation in
the House removes all doubt. The House is not policing itself.”

Associated Press asked the four lawmakers who lead the ethics
committees whether they would make a commitment to investigate ethical
wrongdoing if, as expected, the information Abramoff supplies in a plea
agreement exposes misconduct by a number of members of Congress. Each
of the four _ two Republicans and two Democrats _ declined, through his
spokesmen, to do so.

The House Committee on Standards of Official
Conduct is headed by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.; the top Democrat is
Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.

The Senate Select Committee
on Ethics is led by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio; the ranking Democrat
is Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

While the committees have an
equal number of Democrats and Republicans, forging a bipartisanship
consensus in ethics investigations often has proved difficult.

the House levied a $300,000 fine against former Speaker Newt Gingrich,
R-Ga., for ethical violations in 1997 _ payment for part of the cost of
investigating his conduct _ weary members of both parties declared an
ethics truce. For several years, there were no major cases for several

The House committee revived itself in 2004, admonishing
DeLay on three separate issues. The House Republican leadership reacted
by refusing to extend the term of the chairman at that time, Rep. Joel
Hefley, R-Colo. He had asked to stay on.

Last year, Hastings and
Mollohan feuded for months over investigative rules, and then for
additional months over the composition of the staff. The entire year
was gone before the leaders finally chose the committee’s top staff
member; he started work only recently.

Abramoff pleaded guilty
this month to conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud in Washington and
to additional charges in Miami. He has agreed to cooperate with

The committees traditionally defer to prosecutors
and do not interfere with criminal investigations. But they can
investigate violations of standards of conduct that are separate from
criminal violations.

Committee actions can range from a critical
letter to recommendations of serious punishment by the full House _ all
the way to expulsion.

The Abramoff criminal inquiry raises
numerous issues. Lawmakers, for instance, are prohibited from accepting
trips from lobbyists.

One way Abramoff lavished favors on
lawmakers was through free travel that he arranged through nonprofit
organizations that got money from the lobbyist’s clients. DeLay has
said he was unaware that Abramoff may have paid for some of his travel.

Bob Ney of Ohio, who has been implicated in the Abramoff investigation,
announced Sunday that he will step aside temporarily as chairman of the
House Administration Committee with jurisdiction over many of the rules
governing lobbyists and travel.

More than four dozen lawmakers _
from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
_ sent to federal agencies letters that were favorable to Abramoff
clients or took official actions in Congress to help them.

the same time, those lawmakers received large political donations or
used Abramoff’s skybox or restaurant for fundraising. Some lawmakers
didn’t provide reimbursement until years later.

Ethics watchdog
groups have written the committees alleging those activities violate
congressional ethics standards that require lawmakers to avoid even the
appearance of a conflict of interest.

Congress’ response to the
budding scandal so far, especially in the House, has been a flurry of
proposals to write new laws to control lobbyists’ relations with
lawmakers. Some experts believe that without an investigation that can
lead to discipline, ethics violators get a free pass.

“You have
to publicly reprimand someone,” said Judy Nadler, the former mayor of
Santa Clara, Calif., and now a senior fellow at Santa Clara University.
“If there are no consequences, things will not change. This is drive-by

Former Sen. Warren Rudman, a Republican who served on
the Senate ethics committee, said, “The amount of politics that
intruded into the House committee is discouraging.”

Rudman said
the ethics leaders have an obligation to follow up on any potential
violations of standards of conduct. “It would be impossible not to
address some of these issues,” said Rudman, who served during the
Keating Five investigation that suffered through partisanship in the
Senate panel.

That investigation had similarities to the Abramoff
case. It involved donations to five senators from a savings and loan
operator, who persuaded the lawmakers to intervene with federal
regulators on his behalf. The timing of the donations and official
actions was a key issue with both the Keating Five and the Abramoff

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the
People & the Press, said the Abramoff case is “likely to raise the
issue of how well Congress does in keeping track of its own behavior.”

But he said the public will not really get interested until more lawmakers are publicly named in the criminal investigation.