Whether or not you’re a fan of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one remarkable fact of her political career is that she is one of the only speakers in over 50 years to lead a party and not be ensnared by ethics scandals.
Representative Kevin McCarthy, leader of the House Republican caucus, has promised to strengthen ethics if he becomes speaker, but whether he can achieve that important goal—and effectuate the rest of his agenda—is dependent on whether he can hold the gavel with scandal-free hands.
Ever since the House first created a standing ethics committee in 1967, the majority of speakers have been entangled in ethics investigations that have weakened or destroyed their political power. Although some of these ethics scandals have been largely forgotten today, they were front-page news when they occurred—and they had significant consequences.
Speaker John McCormack took a political hit because of the Sweig-Voloshen influence peddling case, while Speaker Tip O’Neill was caught up in “Koreagate.” Speaker Jim Wright resigned after illegal gifts and payments were exposed, and the House Banking Scandal was a cloud over Speaker Tom Foley. Speaker Newt Gingrich had too many scandals to fit under one name, and Speaker Dennis Hastert faced investigation in connection with the Mark Foley congressional page scandal.
Pelosi is one of four speakers who did not have an ethics scandal, and, of the four, she is the only one to push for and pass extensive ethics reform. She campaigned in October 2006 to “drain the swamp” during her first 100 hours if the Democrats took control of the House in the mid-terms. When she ultimately took over in 2007, she championed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, extensive reform that tightened lobbying, campaign finance and ethics laws.
The next year, she led the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent investigative body in the House that has been praised by watchdog groups for uncovering ethics violations. This was no small task. In fact, the Senate still refuses to create its own independent investigative body over a decade later (possibly due to concern that such a body may be effective at uncovering ethics issues in that chamber).
The next speaker has a clear path forward to lead with ethics reform and dodge ethics scandals. Leader McCarthy may have already recognized that it pays to campaign on ethics reform. During the months leading up to the midterm elections, he promised to ban members of Congress from trading stock, which is one of voters’ top priorities according to polling. McCarthy made this promise after Pelosi was involved in the closest thing to an ethics scandal while speaker: showing reluctance to support a stock trading ban for members of Congress while her husband frequently traded millions in stock.
Ironically, this ethics criticism of Pelosi is a result of her compliance with the ethics law that requires timely reporting of stock trades made by lawmakers, their spouses and dependents, a law that over 70 other members do not comply with. All the timely reports disclose one thing: stock trading by members of Congress and their spouses results in actual and perceived conflicts of interest. A ban on stock trading is the only logical next step, which Pelosi was criticized for not supporting seriously and McCarthy promises to pass.
History suggests that one of the first bouts of political wrangling the GOP’s next speaker will face with the party is what to do with the OCE. Immediately after the 2010 midterm, Rep. John Boehner was the first Republican who prepared to become Speaker since the creation of the OCE in 2008. A few weeks after the election, his home state put pressure on him not to shut down the OCE despite many in his party who wanted to end it immediately.
Later, when the GOP won control of the House in 2017, Speaker Paul Ryan’s first day on the job had House Republican at odds with President-Elect Trump about the fate of the Office of Congressional Ethics. The first act of the new Congress included a plan to kill the OCE. While political pressure saved the OCE once again, we can expect another swipe to weaken ethics with the new speaker unless the party focuses on the long term.
We will soon see if history will repeat itself: will the Speaker support ethics reform, stay out of ethics trouble and survive, or fall into the swamp and resign?