It happens I had an opportunity to discuss this with a member of the House Ethics Committee. I was assigned to interview Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-Il) and her opponent for the race in Illinois' 13th congressional district last November as a member of the editorial board of my hometown newspaper. The newspaper's endorsement for the election was at stake.
We met on a Tuesday. The previous Friday, Congressman Foley (R-Fl) resigned suddenly following the public disclosure of his long, inappropriate association with male congressional pages. The House Ethics Committee was scheduled to meet that Thursday on the case of Congressman Foley.
Congresswoman Biggert, her chief of staff, the editorial page editor and I met for about an hour. She started by taking us through her accomplishments and her list of priorities for the district. Then we began the questions.
I asked Congresswoman Biggert why the House Ethics Committee seemed to be ineffective staying on top of House ethics issues. The Ethics Committee was a little late and more than a dollar short on many cases this term besides Foley's. Congressman DeLay resigned after being indicted. Representative Ney resigned after his conviction for taking bribes from Jack Abramoff. Congressman Cunningham tearfully confessed after his conviction for taking bribes for Pentagon contracts. The cases of Congressmen Weldon and Jefferson are still pending. And all that was just this past term.
Representative Biggert looked me in the eye sternly and said she has been a member of the House Ethics Committee for three terms. I returned her gaze with a slight smile and said politely, "Yes."
Then she began her answer. First, she said she was sickened by the behavior of representative Foley. I would say by the expression on her face and the look in her eyes that child predators do genuinely sicken her. She is a grandmother. I felt her response came from her heart.
But, as a member of the House Ethics Committee for the last six years, she did not seem troubled that the committee has been ineffective. She explained most of the issues and cases mentioned in the press were not brought to the Ethics Committee. So there was nothing the Ethics Committee could do. She cited the sanctions the Ethics Committee did impose on Representative Ney, which included taking away his right to vote in Congress, but she pointed out he was re-elected anyway.
It's clear to me that the system of how the Ethics Committee is used is broken. It seems to have been used only to provide air cover so congressional criminals could say the Ethics Committee took no action against them. Some endorsement.
We went on to discuss other election issues for the remainder of the hour.
As we were saying our goodbyes, I encouraged Congresswoman Biggert to "stand up on her hind legs" and work to change the House of Representatives into something Americans can be proud of rather than ashamed of. She hesitated for a long moment, perhaps considering whether the daunting task was possible or how I could be so naive. When she left, I wrote in my notes that I didn't think she would make waves.
And last Friday the Ethics Committee made public its findings on the Foley case -- no evidence that any current lawmakers or aides violated any rules. Same old story.
Thankfully, the American voters in last month's election made the waves necessary to wash away part of the problem in Congress. But unless the new leadership rejuvenates the Ethics Committee, the dirt will accumulate again and require another wave by the voters to clean out.