Tribunals of Legislative Ethics
You have members sitting in judgment of other members with whom they have to work day by day. . . . There is a kind of innate conflict of interest when members of the Ethics Committee are called upon to judge their colleagues.
While insisting that he was only "being a bit of a Devil's advocate," Representative Lee Hamilton in testimony before the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress exposed the conflict of interest at the heart of efforts to enforce legislative ethics.1 The Constitution assigns Congress the responsibility for disciplining its own members2 Yet principles of legislative ethics cast suspicion on any process in which members discipline themselves. How can ethics committees claim to judge an individual conflict of interest when they themselves stand in a position of institutional conflict of interest? The chief constitutional instrument for enforcing ethics seems itself to be ethically compromised. Members judging members raises reasonable doubts about the independence, fairness, and accountability of the process.
This chapter explores the difficulties that this institutional conflict creates for congressional ethics. The difficulties cannot be overcome simply by relying on the electoral process and the system of criminal justice, the other principal tribunals of judgment. Some changes in the way the ethics committees conduct their business are necessary. Most important, both chambers need to establish a new body, composed of citizens who are not members and who enjoy some independent authority. Such a body is especially needed to cope with the increase in cases of institutional corruption.