How an Independent Ethics Committee in the Senate Would Help Reduce Corruption and Increase Accountability in Our Democracy

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To reduce corruption and hold senators accountable, an independent ethics committee focused on the Senate and made up of nonmembers must be established. Without ethics enforcement, members will continue to favor the priorities of donors and special interests. We need stronger ethics enforcement to ensure members prioritize the interests of the public.

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Ethics enforcement in the U.S. Senate is based on a system of self-policing, in which members are responsible for enforcing ethics rules against their own colleagues. As a result, the Senate consistently fails to hold its members accountable for unethical behavior. Over the last 10 years, only 3% of investigations have resulted in finding a senator guilty of an ethics violation.  

After a series of scandals involving elected officials in the U.S. House of Representatives and their staff came to light, the House formed the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) in 2008. The OCE is an independent ethics committee that examines cases of alleged misconduct and makes referrals to the House Committee on Ethics, which decides whether a member has committed a violation and needs to receive punishment. The OCE has been reauthorized every Congress since its inception because of its success at conducting thorough investigations and making the process more transparent.  

Meanwhile, in the Senate, there is no independent ethics committee to conduct investigations. Instead, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, which has an equal number of Democratic and Republican senators by design, is responsible for looking into instances of alleged wrongdoing and determining whether a violation was committed and what consequences that violation warrants. In recent years, senators have taken advantage of the fact that it is their own colleagues gathering evidence and choosing sanctions, frequently breaking the rules with little to no consequence.   

Only a small percentage of complaints filed in the Senate end with members being found guilty of a violation or publicly released reports. In the past decade, the Senate Ethics Committee dismissed investigated complaints at a rate of 52%, and only 3% of those investigated complaints resulted in the finding of a violation. Additionally, there is no way to explain what happens with the other cases because there are so few public reports. By comparison, the OCE dismisses complaints at a similar rate of 56% but finds violations in 41% of cases. More importantly, 43% of the investigations in the House result in public reports compared to 5% in the Senate.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) has been fighting to make enforcement the norm rather than the exception in the Senate and stop illegal practices like insider stock trading or soliciting campaign donations in Capitol buildings. Each time the Senate ethics committee fails to review potential violations and hold members to account, it establishes, “a dangerous precedent” that self-interested, corrupt behavior by members is acceptable.

There are many ways the Senate could establish an independent ethics committee, including expanding the jurisdiction of the OCE. Legislation to create a Senate version of OCE has been proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) during the 117th Congress, but the Senate is able to create the committee without legislation and without approval from the president.

Over 90% of voters across party lines support increasing enforcement of ethics rules for members of Congress. We can no longer rely on the system of self-policing in the Senate. We need stronger ethics enforcement to make sure that members prioritize the interests of the public.

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