Senate Ethics Committee Proves Again Why Senate Needs an Independent Ethics Body

Brightly lit dawn sky behind the illuminated dome of the Capitol in Washington DC with the pool and statues.
The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Photo by Backyard Productions / Alamy Stock Photo

The Senate Ethics Committee (Ethics Committee) just released its annual report for 2023. For 13 months, the public has had no idea what the Ethics Committee has been doing. Despite the long wait, and a prominent ethics scandal surrounding a committee chairman, the annual report reveals that we haven’t missed much. Once again, the Ethics Committee has dismissed nearly all of its ethics investigations and issued no penalties.

The Ethics Committee’s failure to find any wrongdoing is not because there were no allegations of ethics violations (they received 145 complaints) but because, as CLC has been highlighting for a decade now, the Senate Ethics Committee is an inadequate body that is seemingly incapable of holding senators accountable.

It does not have to be this way. The House has figured out how to uphold ethics rules and laws transparently and effectively, through the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). OCE has successfully operated independently from the House Ethics Committee since its creation in 2008.  

In 2023, OCE conducted 14 investigations, dismissed three, found four violations, and published two reports. In comparison, the Senate Ethics Committee conducted 19 investigations, dismissed 12, found one violation, and did not publish a single report. Not only has OCE been more effective in its ethics enforcement, but it has also been significantly more transparent. Every quarter, OCE releases a report detailing the statistics of the actions it has taken, and throughout the year it releases public reports of its investigations.

These data aren’t a result of an off year for the Ethics Committee. CLC conducted a comparative study to evaluate 15 years of ethics enforcement in the U.S. House and Senate, from 2009 to 2023, and it was conclusive that the Senate Ethics Committee falls woefully short in its enforcement of ethics rules and laws.

The lack of accountability in the Senate for ethics violations decreases public trust because it strips voters of their right to know whether their elected officials are acting ethically.

To effectively hold lawmakers accountable, the Senate must create an independent office for ethics investigations. This office should be modeled after OCE. Without effective ethics enforcement, senators will continue to favor their own personal financial interests, as well as donor and special interest priorities over their constituents’ needs.

Danielle is a Legal Counsel on CLC's Ethics team.