The Senate Gives Itself an A+ on Ethics
The Senate Ethics Committee almost never publicly punishes its own, no matter what they do.
Another year, another nearly spotless ethical report card for the United States Senate.
At least, according to the Senate Ethics Committee. The panel — charged with policing behavior and enforcing ethical standards in the self-proclaimed world’s greatest deliberative body — hasn’t disciplined anyone for the 17th year in a row. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Not a single U.S. senator or staffer had any ethical lapses worthy of sanction in 2023, if the panel’s own numbers are to be trusted.
Since the committee started disclosing a scintilla of information about its workload in 2007, it has received more than 1,500 complaints about potential ethics violations. But on average, it has opened basic preliminary inquiries into less than 10% of new cases each year. More often — roughly 69% of the time — the panel decides the complaints it receives aren’t within its jurisdiction or don’t represent violations of the Senate rules. Very rarely — in less than 1% of total complaints received — the panel will issue a symbolic letter of admonition while making almost no information public about its findings or the allegations at play.
Maybe senators are simply better behaved than members of the House, where in the past four years alone, that chamber’s ethics panel has levied a $50,000 fine on one member, four other lawmakers have been censured by their colleagues and one representative was expelled after a damning report. There was a public letter of admonition from the Senate Ethics Committee last year, chiding Sen. Lindsey Graham for fundraising in a Senate office building but with no penalty.
But more likely, a combination of the Senate’s clubbiness and collegiality, even in highly polarized times, and its lack of an independent watchdog have contributed to a culture where the Senate rarely feels compelled to punish its own. Even as senators call for increased ethics accountability in the courts and law enforcement, they have little to say when it comes to their own body.
Should the Senate ethics panel be more transparent about its investigations and the complaints it receives? Sen. Marco Rubio said it was the first time he’d been asked that question. “I don’t know enough to opine on it intelligently.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, had a similar response. “I’d have to look into all that before I give an answer,” he told NOTUS.
There was once a famous cartoon depicting the doorway to the Ways and Means Committee offices with the word “powerful” graffitied in before the name of the committee.
“I would do the same but put ‘feckless’ over the door of the Senate Ethics Committee,” said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and fellow emeritus at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Consider the paths of two lawmakers. Rep. George Santos was sworn into office last January under a cloud of suspicion about his background, his personal finances and his campaign expenditures. By May, he was facing charges of money laundering, fraud and theft. On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Bob Menendez was indicted in September, followed by two superseding indictments in October and January, for taking bribes and conspiring to act as a foreign agent for Egypt and aid Qatar.
The House Ethics Committee almost immediately opened an investigation into Santos. Despite the fact that the Justice Department was conducting a parallel criminal investigation, the House panel nevertheless issued 37 subpoenas and interviewed 40 witnesses. It reviewed 172,000 pages of records and issued a searing report that led to Santos’ expulsion from the House — all before a jury had ever been impaneled to decide his criminal charges.
Menendez, on the other hand, remains a member in good standing of the Senate, and his colleagues are in no rush to oust him. The ethics panel won’t disclose whether it has launched an investigation into him or not, although it issued a statement after he was charged noting that its long-standing policy is to defer to the Justice Department in open criminal investigations. In interviews with NOTUS earlier this month, Menendez’s Democratic colleagues were largely content to leave the matter in the hands of the courts and New Jersey voters.
The House Ethics Committee shares public updates about ongoing investigations, summaries of allegations against members and the names of lawmakers who are being probed. Each case ends with a report detailing the panel’s findings, investigative processes, sometimes even transcripts of depositions and the reasons for its recommendations.
The Senate ethics panel reveals almost nothing about its work, and certainly nothing approaching the level of detail the House side offers. It also moves incredibly slowly. When nearly 20 women said former Republican Sen. Bob Packwood had sexually harassed them in the early 1990s, it took the panel almost three years to recommend his expulsion. And even though former Sen. Richard Burr — who was accused in early 2020 of trading stocks on classified information he’d received about the COVID-19 pandemic — quickly requested a probe into his own conduct by the ethics panel, it has never made public any information about such an investigation. Burr says he is innocent of wrongdoing, and the Justice Department in 2021 ended its own investigation into the matter without charges.
Four years later, the little information the public knows about what happened comes from a search warrant unsealed in the criminal investigation, which shows that Burr sold most of his equities in the weeks before most Americans were aware of the seriousness of the pandemic and before the broad market collapse that accompanied its rapid spread.
Annual Senate ethics reports — the latest of which came out Wednesday — offer only anonymized statistics about the panel’s deliberations, and the senators who serve on the committee are sworn to secrecy. The House issues a report hundreds of pages long about what it does every session of Congress. The Senate issues a two-page letter disclosing eight pieces of information about its workload. The biggest takeaway every year is that very few ethics complaints about senators result in investigations at all.
In 2023, the panel received 145 alleged violations of Senate rules. Of those, it dismissed 112 for lack of jurisdiction or because the claims didn’t represent rule violations. The committee dismissed another 20 allegations “because they failed to provide sufficient facts” beyond “mere allegation.” Just 13 of the 145 allegations resulted in preliminary inquiries. Only one allegation resulted in a letter of admonishment, and none of them led to disciplinary sanction.
A spokesperson for Sen. Chris Coons, who chairs the committee, declined to comment on the 2023 report, or any other questions about how the committee has operated, “as a matter of policy.”
Because there are fewer senators than House members, Rubio speculated this week, there will naturally be fewer ethics cases: “You’re going to have one-fourth the number of people to keep an eye on.”
Rubio added that the Senate Ethics Committee also offers advice, and senators can pre-clear activities with them to make sure they don’t run afoul of the chamber’s rules.
“I don’t know,” he concluded, then reflecting on the differences between the Senate’s ethics committee and the House’s. “I’ve never thought about that.”
And Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, defended the chamber’s oversight processes. “The folks that sit on the Ethics Committee, I think, are good people, and I know they take their work very, very seriously,” he said.
Watchdog groups aren’t so sure. They want to see an independent agency to receive ethics complaints about senators, akin to the Office of Congressional Ethics, which vets allegations on the House side. Since 1951, lawmakers have routinely debated establishing an independent office of congressional ethics with jurisdiction over both chambers. In the more than 70 years since, senators haven’t moved any closer to adopting that idea.
Absent any bicameral interest in true ethics reform, the House created its independent OCE in 2008, after the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. The Senate, however, has left enforcement to its own ethics committee.
The Senate ethics panel is made up of three Republicans and three Democrats. “Politics very seldom influences what they carry out,” Sen. Thom Tillis told NOTUS this month. He was skeptical about creating an independent watchdog: “There’s no such thing as independent,” he said. “I don’t want to create another body that will by itself be politicized.”
The House has its fair share of challenges — its own ethics reforms came after high-profile scandals and a public reckoning over accountability — and its current ethics committee isn’t perfectly transparent. But take it from someone who’s been on the receiving end of the committee’s scrutiny: “The House is brutally thorough,” Arizona GOP Rep. David Schweikert told NOTUS of a two-year investigation into his campaign finance violations. In the end, Schweikert faced a formal reprimand and had to pay a $50,000 fine, which he said “was fair.”
When the investigation concluded, the ethics panel published more than 2,000 pages detailing what had transpired. Why is that level of disclosure unimaginable in the Senate? “They’re culturally different,” Schweikert said.
“The Senate Ethics Committee just shows that self-policing doesn’t work. The scandals that happened on the House side forced them to be more aggressive,” said Kedric Payne, an ethics expert at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center who previously served as a lawyer at OCE.
The Senate’s opacity comes as many Democrats point fingers at the Supreme Court’s lack of an independent ethics watchdog or code of conduct, with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse pushing for a new body of lower court judges empowered to investigate and make recommendations on the court’s ethics.
But there is a self-policing problem closer to home.
“They have that colleagues-covering-for-colleagues phenomena that we have at the Supreme Court of the United States, where the senators say we’ll handle our own ethics issues,” said Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer who served in the George W. Bush administration. “And that’s not working. It’s not working for the Supreme Court. It doesn’t work for the Senate.”