Ethical Dilemmas

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The idea of House ethics has evolved over time. For example, when Daniel Webster was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in the 1830’s, he was upfront about his second job working for the Bank of America. Few colleagues criticized him, or even took much notice, when he’d argue cases before the Supreme Court – then housed in the Senate — that involved his financial interests. Until the 1960’s the House had an unspoken ethics code. When egregiously breached, the House would set up special temporary committees to deal with the offending members.

The House created a select committee on ethics in 1966 at the urging of Rep. Charles Bennett of Florida, who’d written the federal government’s ethics guidelines and felt strongly that Congress should have a similar code. In January 1967 a special select committee led by then-Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Cellar excluded seating Adam Clayton Powell, ironically Charlie Rangel’s predecessor, for various corruption charges, including keeping his estranged wife living in Puerto Rico on the congressional payroll for six years. Powell’s case convinced those on the fence of the necessity of a permanent ethics committee. Bennett, though, who was known as “Mr. Clean,” was considered too much of a boy scout, and was thus not named to the Committee on Standards and Official Conduct when it officially formed at the end of 1967.

In recent history Congress has always had a push-pull relationship with ethics. Members want to be seen to be for it but don’t want oversight to be too rigorous. Which is exactly what’s happening now with the Office of Congressional Ethics. Michael Crowley and I have a piece in this week’s dead tree edition on the Democrats’ current woes. But I broke out of that a profile up now on of Leo Wise, OCE’s staff director and general counsel. It’s a look at how Wise is making waves just as The New York Times today argues in an editorial that Congress should not allow this office to be weakened.