Usually the news that a Member of Congress is seeking $30 contributions would be received as good news – evidence that there is a role for average Americans in the multi-million dollar campaign game. But the recent debacle involving Members skipping their own swearing in and fundraising in the United States Capitol reflects horribly on the institution. The situation highlights the poisoned atmosphere in Washington where for all too many Members the never-ending campaign threatens to trump their constitutional role of legislating.
Unfortunately for Rep. Mike Fitzgerald (R-PA), the fundraising scheme that he and his team put together, highlighted by a party in the Capitol to celebrate his swearing-in, has landed him in hot water. Turns out that the invite to the event clearly asked for a contribution to Fitzpatrick’s campaign committee. Fundraising in the Capitol complex is a big no-no, prohibited by both laws and House rules. The law allows Members to hold swearing-in receptions in House offices, paid for by campaign contributions, but not fundraisers.
Then to make matters worse, Rep. Fitzpatrick, busy with his constituents and the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), missed the swearing-in ceremony on the House floor. As a result, he and Sessions cast several votes while not officially Representatives. Those votes had to be nullified by congressional resolution and re-voted. Rep. Fitzpatrick, who served in the House previously, and Rep. Sessions, a veteran of the House and a member of the Leadership, can’t claim to have made a rookie mistake.
While the amounts involved are small potatoes and there was probably no intent to violate rules and laws prohibiting fundraising in the Capitol (the $30 was charged to cover the bus fare to Washington), there is much confusion about whether or not rules and laws were violated. That is why it is important for the Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee to examine exactly what happened, to make clear public statements about what Rep. Fitzpatrick did wrong, and to provide Members with specific guidance on how to avoid replication of this situation.
It would be unfortunate for the Ethics Committee to repeat its disappointing performance in the per diem case it decided before the holidays. In that case, the Ethics Committee made the mystifying finding that, even though Members themselves admitted they used their per diem for gifts and other non-essential expenses, there was no “evidence” that such expenditures had occurred and thus there was no violation. This finding flew in the face of reality. Given the Members’ own statements, there was no doubt that House rules had been violated. And while again the amounts involved were again small potatoes, the Committee failed to do its job and missed a good opportunity to again give clear guidance to Members about how best to follow the rules for per diem and to reinforce that abiding by House Rules is a solemn responsibility for Members. “No serious harm, no foul” is no way to run the legislative branch.
In the case of Rep. Fitzpatrick, there should be no need for any Member or outside entity to formally request the OCE to investigate what happened in the case of this fundraising event. The basic information is already in the public sphere and certainly, at a minimum, there are legitimate questions about the appearance of Rep. Fitzpatrick’s celebration. Quite simply, it reflects poorly on the House of Representatives and is beneath the dignity of the office. As entities charged with upholding the integrity of the institution, the Office should, on its own initiative, collect the facts and the Ethics Committee should point out where mistakes were made so that other Members will not repeat these missteps.
In the end, the Fitzpatrick faux pas is likely to turn out as an unwitting mistake, but it is illustrative of just how much the money-raising machinery is part and parcel of congressional daily life. Choosing to spend time with contributors rather than performing one’s sworn duties as an elected Member of the U.S. House of Representatives is sadly indicative of the skewed priorities of too many elected officials in Washington today.
This piece ran in The Hill's Congress blog on January 18, 2011 and a shorter version was published in the print edition on January 20, 2011.