The Senate ‘ethics’ committee is a black hole where allegations die

This op-ed by Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee originally appeared in The Hill.

In the face of several highly charged allegations of sexual harassment, the Senate is turning to its ethics committee for political cover. It is an open secret in Washington that this committee is an “ethics committee” in name only. In the face of numerous allegations of sexual harassment against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and potential Sen. Roy Moore (R-Ala.), the Senate and its ethics committee face a moment of truth. Should the committee open an investigation into allegations against Franken and potentially Moore, as has been proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Franken himself, it will have radically reenvisioned the scope of its oversight.

Historically, the committee has interpreted its jurisdiction in very narrow terms, often punting on the hard questions and gaining a well-earned reputation as a black hole where ethics allegations go to die. While there’s no question that poor ethical behavior, sexual harassment and discrimination should be immediately investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee, there’s a larger issue at hand that will have far-reaching implications for lawmakers in the chamber: Will the Committee reverse course and reject their own past precedent, going back at least a decade, to claim jurisdiction over allegations against senators before they ran for or served in public office?

It looks like political expediency is forcing the Senate’s hand. This is a committee that has consistently avoided addressing these kinds of issues for years, by insisting that it only had a narrow scope of jurisdiction. For example, in 2007, the Senate Ethics Committee, in response to an outside complaint, investigated Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) alleged solicitation of prostitution. In that instance, the Committee “dismissed the matter without prejudice” stating the conduct at issue occurred before Senator Vitter’s senate candidate and service, the conduct at issue did not result in a criminal charge, and the conduct at issue did not involve “use of public office or status for improper purposes”.

Even then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who previously chaired the Senate Ethics Committee, said of Vitter’s case, “It appears whatever might have occurred, occurred before this individual came to the Senate, therefore raising serious questions as to whether the Senate has jurisdiction over it.” So what has suddenly changed? Essentially, the Senate is looking for cover. Up to now, the systems the body has used to police itself have repeatedly proven inadequate.

Now is the moment for the Senate Ethics Committee to explicitly reject the limited scope laid out in the Vitter case and articulate a new standard through either a public letter or Senate resolution that clearly lays out under what circumstances lawmakers or staff fall under Senate Ethics Committee jurisdiction. Furthermore, the committee should commit to applying this new standard going forward and a public explanation for any actions it does, or does not take. Anything less will ensure the Senate Ethics Committee continues to earn it’s reputation as an “ethics” committee in name only.

Meredith McGehee is executive director at Issue One. She previously spent more than a decade as director of policy as the Campaign Legal Center.