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How the push for stronger ethics rules in Congress is routinely derailed

George Santos

Despite recently scandals, like the one involved former Rep. George Santos, Congress is not taking steps to strengthen the rules.

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Andreone is an undergraduate student for Medill on the Hill, a program of Northwestern University in which students serve as mobile journalists reporting on events in and around Washington, D.C.

When rank-and-file members of Congress become household names, it’s often for the wrong reasons. Take former Rep. George Santos and Sen. Bob Menendez, for example.

Members of Congress facing allegations of brazen corruption face the loss of reputation, intense media criticism and the wrath of their colleagues. But even amid widespread vocal outcry, most lawmakers have been hesitant to take strong legislative action to crack down on unethical behavior.

A 2021 Pew Research Center study found that two in three Americans agreed with the phrase “most politicians are corrupt,” and, according to a similar New York Times/Siena College poll, 68 percent of registered voters surveyed in 2022 believed the U.S. government “mainly works to benefit powerful elites,” not “ordinary people.”

Some lawmakers are working to enact change but have yet to pick up substantial support for their proposals, despite recent scandals. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has long advocated for stronger ethics standards throughout the federal government, said the response to corruption in Congress has been “very crisis-driven.”

Warren added that despite her repeated attempts to push legislative reform, “there just hasn’t been much appetite for change.”

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Most recently, Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, has faced broad calls to resign after being indicted on federal bribery charges and allegedly conspiring to act as a foreign agent for Egypt.

Santos was forced from the House after being indicted on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements to Congress.

Santos survived an initial Republican-led motion to expel him from the House in early November. Just a few weeks later, the House Ethics Committee released a damning report detailing the findings of its investigation. The committee found that Santos violated several federal laws and stole from his campaign, using money from donors to pay for personal expenses, including Botox and OnlyFans purchases.

A second resolution to expel Santos succeeded by a vote of 311-114 on Dec. 1, making him just the sixth lawmaker to be expelled from Congress.

While Santos has recently become the symbol of government corruption, RawStory uncovered 10 additional members of Congress who violated financial disclosure requirements in 2022.

Little action in Congress

Despite growing public distrust in government and robust media coverage of recent scandals, no attempts to adopt stronger ethics standards have taken root in Congress in 2023.

In recent years, Warren has introduced a steady stream of anti-corruption bills targeting all branches of government, including the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act (2018, 2020), the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act (2022) and the Presidential Conflict of Interests Act (2023).

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said he may consider introducing anti-corruption legislation as well, but “never thought it would come to that kind of place” where the Senate would need to address the type of behavior detailed in the Menendez indictment.

“It’s sad that we need to have a law to say you shouldn’t have bribe gold bars in a mattress,” Fetterman said.

Fetterman has been the most vocal advocate in the Senate for Menendez’s resignation. He appeared receptive to the idea of working with Warren to tackle ethics violations, saying he is “open to anything,” especially if the reform is introduced by “somebody like Senator Warren.”

Warren also decried the so-called revolving door that connects the private sector and elected office.

“The revolving door, which spins between federal government and private industry, and literally puts people from private industry in government, temporarily creating rules that favor their former and future employers, and then they spin back onto the private side with big pay bumps and promotions, that’s wrong. And we need to close that down,” she said.

Ethics reform also has some vocal advocates among leadership in the House of Representatives. Several of Warren’s recent bills were co-authored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

Jayapal said leaders of the push for ethical reform in Congress have “had some success” in assembling a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who support such legislation.

She added, however, that those who have united to tackle corruption in government have faced obstacles “across the board” from members who have different interests, “and their own stock portfolios in some cases.”

“People sometimes look at things and say, ‘Well, this isn't consistent with where I am right now,’” Jayapal said. “And what we try to say is, ‘You don't have to be perfect. Once we enforce it, then everyone will be on the same page.’”

While touting bipartisan support for ethics reform legislation, Jayapal specifically mentioned her bill to ban members of Congress from owning or trading individual stocks, co-authored by GOP Reps. Ken Buck (Colo.) and Matt Rosendale (Mont.). Their bill would go further than previously passed legislation, like the STOCK Act of 2012.

Buck said members of Congress owning individual stocks is “an obvious conflict of interests,” allowing them to make “profits off of insider information.” He added that the bill is stuck in committee and had not been made a priority by previous leadership.

“I asked [then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy] to work on it. He said he would,” Buck said. “It has not been worked on.”

Just two months after Buck introduced the bill with Jayapal and Rosendale, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), both outspoken advocates for anti-corruption efforts in Congress, joined others to introduce additional legislation seeking to ban individual stock trading.

“I care a lot about banning members of Congress from becoming lobbyists or registered foreign agents. And I care a lot about stopping the influence of lobbyists and PAC money in the decision-making here,” Gaetz said

Leadership isn’t on board

Despite the bipartisan support these measures have garnered, the bills have not gained enough traction to pass through either chamber of Congress.

Gaetz said he is optimistic his efforts will be taken more seriously under the new speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.). Gaetz worked with Johnson for seven years on the House Judiciary Committee, where he said he grew confident in the new speaker’s commitment to ethics reform.

But, according to Gaetz, it has been difficult to pass any accountability measures in the recent past because leadership has not been receptive or committed to change.

“Kevin McCarthy would be one obstacle,” Gaetz said. “When we talked to him about it, he did like he does on most issues: paid it lip service and then did nothing.”

In the Senate, rank-and-file lawmakers seeking to reduce the influence of corporations and special-interest groups in politics have also faced significant pushback from leadership, including recently after one senator introduced sweeping legislation to reduce corporations’ influence on elections and policymaking.

On Oct. 31, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a bill directly challenging the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which established that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money in candidate elections.

After Hawley proposed his bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) verbally attacked Hawley during a private Republican meeting, according to a Punchbowl News report and additional Medill News Service reporting. According to McConnell, Hawley benefited from the corporate money provided by McConnell’s super PAC – a type of fundraising committee that can collect and spend the unlimited corporate money Hawley has targeted.

The minority leader’s office declined to comment on the bill or the ensuing argument.

Hawley said that extracting “big corporate money” from politics is imperative. A Yale-educated lawyer, Hawley also questioned the constitutional basis for McConnell’s argument and the Citizens United decision.

“[McConnell] is totally dead wrong about it. He’s dead wrong about the Constitution,” Hawley said. “There is no originalist case for saying that for-profit business corporations should be able to give political contributions. It was totally unknown at the time of the founding. No principle of the First Amendment requires it. I’m frankly not even sure that Citizens United requires it, but to the extent it does, it’s wrong.”

Hawley added that corporations also have “monopoly power” over the U.S. economy, sending American jobs overseas and further harming working-class voters. He then sounded the alarm against corporate attempts to increase influence on politicians and power over voters.

A Pew Research survey published in September revealed that 73 percent of U.S. adults believe lobbyists and special-interest groups have “too much influence” in the “decisions members of Congress make.” By contrast, the polling shows that 70 percent of U.S. adults believe the voters in their districts who elect representatives and senators have “too little influence.”

Researchers also found that younger adults are less likely to have faith in democratic processes and the effect of their votes on election results.

First-term Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), the first member of Generation Z elected to Congress, said lawmakers – and people in general – will always hesitate to “add more rules to themselves.”

Frost expressed concern about the Senate’s ability to bring anti-corruption legislation to a vote even if it were to pass in the House. He also questioned whether a speaker of the House who supports ethics reform enough to bring it to the floor for a vote could even be elected in the current state of Congress.

Frost added that he does have hope, however, that reform may be passed in the near future because “the composition of this institution is changing quickly.”

“It seems like it's not just about ideology. It seems like it's also a generational thing,” Frost said. “And I think that's important to call out because that means that there might be good opportunity over the next decade to really pass some good reforms.”

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