House ethics wars redux?

The Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza on Thursday, October 28, 2021.
Julia Nikhinson

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, charges of ethics abuses were being batted back and forth in the House with the zinging speed of an Olympic ping-pong match.

Among the results of these scandal-plagued years were: the resignation of House Speaker James Wright (D-Texas) in 1989; the creation of a House Bipartisan Leadership Task Force on Ethics that same year, leading to enactment of the Government Ethics Reform Act of 1989 and overhaul of the House Code of Official Conduct; the closures of the House Bank and Post Office; and the creation of a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress in 1992.

These developments eventually led to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40-years. The new Speaker and leader of the revolution that sent Democrats packing was Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.). While Gingrich himself would resign under his own ethics cloud in 1998, a whole new era of partisan warfare had been launched, and it has only accelerated in recent times. The ironic twist is that today it is as much an ongoing intra-party struggle as a clash between the parties. These past few weeks in the House have brought home that new, dual dynamic in stark relief.

The intra-party troubles surfaced among House Republicans with the defeat of President Donald J. Trump in 2020 and the divide among GOP members supporting his claims of a stolen election and those who accepted the election of Joe Biden. It was exacerbated with the second Trump impeachment over inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, violent insurrection at the Capitol and subsequent vote to create a select committee to investigate the matter.

Those Republicans who accepted the election results and those who supported the articles of impeachment and subsequent investigation were singled-out by Trump loyalists as “traitors.”  That label was most recently expanded to the 13 Republicans who voted for final passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

One of those GOP members, Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), who has served in the House since 1987 and is former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, reported that after his vote for the infrastructure bill his office was flooded with over 1,000 calls, many of which contained death threats. He said the calls began after a colleague, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) called him and other Republicans who voted or the bill, traitors, and posted their names and phone numbers. Upton told a reporter for the Detroit News that, “It’s just a polarized, toxic environment; worse than I’ve ever seen before.”

Threats of violence aren’t just emanating from outside Congress. On Monday of last week, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) shared on his official accounts an animated cartoon showing him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and attacking President Biden with two swords. After the furor that arose over the posting, Gosar claimed it was “only a symbolic portrayal of a fight over immigration policy,” and does “not espouse violence or harm towards any Member of Congress or Mr. Biden.”  However, he subsequently deleted the video from his sites.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) responded almost immediately by calling on both the House Ethics Committee and law enforcement to investigate the matter, and implored House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to join her in condemning the “horrific” video. McCarthy reportedly was not immediately available for comment.

Then, last Friday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), along with 60 co-sponsors, filed a resolution to censure Gosar.  If ruled in order, it is privileged for floor consideration and will not need to first clear the Ethics Committee.

All the vitriol in the House is not confined to Republicans. The ongoing disagreements between progressive and moderate Democrats over the president’s priorities have been on public display for several weeks now, but limited primarily to name-calling and motive-questioning rather than any intimations of violence. 

During a House Rules Committee hearing on the president’s build back better social spending plan, one of the committee’s Democratic members leveled personal attacks against certain Republican members, calling them liars. This is in clear violation of House Rule IX which prohibits members from impugning the motives, reputation, conduct and veracity of other members.

Are all these nasty goings-on a temporary tempest or precursor of a longer-term storm enveloping the House of Representatives? History has shown that Congress has periodically been tossed by such contretemps, leaving substantial damage in their wakes, but has eventually emerged the stronger for experiencing the downside of such fierce infighting.

I wish I could be reassured by that historical record, but it is difficult in the midst of such turmoil to see a light on the horizon. It is a major test for the internal leadership of both parties, as well as for a disgusted and disillusioned public willing to shout, “Enough!” 

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Fred Upton Jackie Speier Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Marjorie Taylor Greene Nancy Pelosi Newt Gingrich Paul Gosar United States House Committee on Ethics

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