Open the Windows, Speaker Pelosi!

Finally, Maxine Waters is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee. The California Representative, who serves on the House Financial Services Committee, has been accused of inappropriately accessing federal bailout funds for a bank in which she and her husband have a substantial financial interest. It took months for Congress to respond to the charges of blatant self-dealing, despite Nancy Pelosi’s promise that ethics charges would be dealt with promptly.

This is not the first time Waters has landed on the griddle. In fact, her presence on a list of 15 most corrupt members of Congress this year is her third such honor.

Ms. Waters is hardly alone in abusing the power of her office. The report out last week from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) detailing the peccadilloes of our elected officials was noteworthy not for its revelations of dishonest practices, but for the yawns which greeted it. Somewhere along the line, the American people gave up demanding honesty from their representatives, and that is a national tragedy. The last time someone asked, 40% of Americans said they consider used-car salesmen more ethical than members of Congress.

Low expectations held by voters are certainly part of the problem here. So, however, is a lack of confidence that Congress will police its own. Here’s a suggestion: open the doors and let Americans witness the workings of the House Ethics Committee. If being stripped naked and flayed in full view of your countrymen is the appropriate way to investigate Ed Liddy, a decent man trying (for free) to safeguard the taxpayers’ interest in AIG – why isn’t it the best way to question New York’s Charles Rangel about his real estate holdings, or to ask Nevada’s John Ensign about his alleged payments to his former paramour? Why do the ethics committees of both the House and the Senate operate in such luxurious secrecy while members of Congress get to preen before C-SPAN as they excoriate Fed Chair Ben Bernanke or Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack? Just as Congress seems to have the sweetest deal on health insurance, they also get a free pass on accountability. My guess is that one or two open-door hearings into dishonest tax accounting or improper payoffs would do a lot to clean up Washington. At the least, it would be highly entertaining.

The process of internal policing, undertaken in the House by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and in the Senate by the Select Committee on Ethics, is considered a joke. If a politician wants to evade scrutiny, but telegraph that his heart is in the right place, he tells his constituents “I asked to be investigated by the Ethics Committee”, which, according to Ken Boehm of the National Legal and Policy Center, is akin to asking to be thrown into the briar patch. In other words, a welcome outcome for one and all.

This doesn’t mean that Congress is not occasionally concerned with these matters. When political gain is on the table, our representatives can act with lightning speed. Just recently, when Joe Wilson shook the foundations of Congressional decorum (such as it is) by shouting “you lie!” at the president, the House issued a rare rebuke. The Committee on Rules clarified the censorious vote, by noting that members may refer to the president’s message as “a disgrace to the country” but may not call the Commander in Chief a “hypocrite” or say that he’s been “intellectually dishonest.” That last one seems a squeaker, I must say; it’s easy to see why an inattentive Congressman could be confused and step over the line.

Generally, though, ethics probes constitute a waste of time. Mr. Boehm characterizes those most likely to misbehave as seasoned representatives who “have served for a while, feel safe and know how the club operates.” Charlie Rangel, now serving his 20th term and currently head of the powerful Committee on Ways and Means, fits that bill perfectly. He has been listed on CREW’s “most corrupt” list twice, with seemingly little impact. Mr. Boehm, whose stomach must once upon a time have churned with moral outrage, now describes these goings on with some amusement.

For instance, he takes up the charges that members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), including Charlie Rangel, attended a junket to the Caribbean in 2008 that violated House rules. The outing was apparently funded by Citigroup, which contributed $100,000, and by IBM and Verizon, among others. Legislators are not supposed to accept lavish travel and entertainment from corporations. The head of Mr. Boehm’s organization went along on the trip and carefully documented the inappropriate behavior.-- Don’t hold your breath for the investigation into this matter to accomplish much; the probe is being led by Rep. G.K. Butterfield, himself a member of the CBC, who went on the same junket in 2005. This level of cynicism is breathtaking, but for Mr. Boehm it is it just another in an endless series of disappointments.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised to “guarantee the highest ethical conduct and a more effective and transparent ethics process.” She has been hard pressed to fulfill that pledge since for the first eight months of the new Congress, under her leadership, the top staff position on the Ethics Committee was not filled.

They finally did choose a director, Blake Chisam, who was part of the search committee, a staffer for the committee chair, and someone who has filed for personal bankruptcy not once but twice – just the sort of responsible and independent person you’d like in this position.

I believe that Americans across the board are sickened by such antics. Though several members of Congress are proud veterans of the “most corrupt” list, many have been defeated, been forced to resign or have gone to prison. I am convinced that open hearings into Congress’ transgressions would be a powerful antidote to the insulting charade of self-governance.

Nancy Pelosi has said she will “open the ethics process up to the participation of our fellow citizens.” I applaud this pledge, and suggest that she might start right now. Open the windows, Mrs. Pelosi, and let in some fresh air.

Liz Peek is a financial columnist and frequent FOX Forum contributor.