The U.S. Senate: A Body in Denial

Remedial action is necessary if the U.S. Senate has any interest in becoming relevant again to our nation's political discourse. While certainly no cure for what ails the body, a first step toward building back the institution's credibility is to strengthen the Senate's ethics process.
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Approval numbers near the single digits -- check. Widely panned as paralyzed and dysfunctional -- check. Low expectations for meaningful action regardless of which party is in control -- check.

Remedial action is necessary if the U.S. Senate has any interest in becoming relevant again to our nation's political discourse. While certainly no cure for what ails the body, a first step toward building back the institution's credibility is to strengthen the Senate's ethics process.

It is currently a "black hole."

As the National Journal recently reported, the Senate Ethics Committee has not acted publicly on any violation since May 2012. It has dismissed every one of the more than 50 complaints that have been filed since 2012. (The number of complaints filed in 2014 won't be known until the committee files its annual report in January.) According to the National Journal, one of the cases the Committee dismissed in 2013 involved Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) who got involved in a tit-for-tat with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Ethics Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) over his hold on an energy bill and his threat to repeal federal contributions to Senator's health care plans. Sen. Vitter filed a complaint accusing the Democrats of bribery after he heard that

Democrats were considering a counter-plan to prevent any Senator who had solicited prostitutes -- a direct shot at Vitter -- or who voted for Vitter's amendment, from receiving the federal contributions. The Committee dismissed the case for lack of evidence, but voted against making that decision public.

The only way this sordid little affair became public is that someone outside the Committee leaked to the media the letters sent to the Senators, the National Journal reported.

Because there is no meaningful transparency in the Senate ethics process, there is no way for the public to assess whether or not the process is working. Instead, the public is simply supposed to take the Senate Committee's word for it that all is well and to accept the apparent delusion in the Senate that ethics are only a problem in the House of Representatives.

That is just not good enough. A vibrant democracy depends on public confidence in the integrity of the institution and the "black hole" that is the Senate ethics process is damaging that confidence.

Here is what the process should look like instead.

Modeled on the successful Office of Congressional Ethics in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate should create its own independent Ethics Office. That Office would accept allegations of ethics violations, and with subpoena power, investigate those allegations. In turn, the Senate Ethics Committee would adjudicate the cases forwarded to them by this Office.

The Office would also be the place to go for approval of privately financed travel. In this new "dark money" era, more and more groups with amorphous-sounding names are seeking to curry favor by underwriting trips for Senators and Senate staff. These newcomers often have no track record and raise the concern that they are acting as pass-throughs for sources of funds that would otherwise not be permitted to finance congressional travel.

Of course, the best policy result to deal with this possible money-laundering scheme would be to end privately financed travel for Senators. Just as Apple isn't allowed to provide free computers to Senate offices nor is Staples permitted to give Senators free office supplies, Senators shouldn't have their travel -- personal or official -- paid for by private sources. Just imagine the difference in what a Senator would see between a trip to the proposed Alaskan national Wildlife Reserve paid for and organized by an oil company (with interest in exploiting the natural resources) versus a trip organized and paid for by an environmental organization (with an interest in protecting wildlife). Instead, such a trip should be arranged by the Senate staff and paid for by official funds.

But don't hold your breath expecting an Ethics Office to be created any time soon or for privately financed travel to disappear. After all, this is the same body that, in full Luddite mode, still refuses to file its campaign finance reports electronically, preferring the slow, tedious and expensive paper model even though every other candidate for federal office files electronically. And despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, this is also a body that believes it is above ethical reproach.

These important ethics changes will take time, but they are just one juicy public scandal away.

In the meantime, the Senate should open up its current process, improve transparency for its ethics advisories provided to Senate office, and revise its rules to protect against inappropriate pass-through funding of privately financed travel. Groups seeking to pay for Senate travel should be required to reveal to the Committee the information needed to accurately assess whether the source of funds meets the Senate's rules for privately financed travel.

Senators like to think that, as the so-called "upper body," they are held in higher public esteem than other elected officials throughout the country. The polling numbers show in no uncertain terms that is not the case. Until the ethics process is reformed, there's little hope the Senate will see its reputation redeemed in the public's eyes.

The current Senate ethics process is broken, and no amount of darkness can hide that ugly truth. Opening the process to the light of day might also have the added benefit of inspiring better behavior from the members of 'the world's most exclusive club.'

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