In the face of several highly charged allegations of sexual harassment, the Senate is turning to its ethics committee for political cover. It is an open secret in Washington that this committee is an “ethics committee” in name only. In the face of numerous allegations of sexual harassment against Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenMeet the Democrats' last best hope of preserving a House majority Franken rules out challenge against Gillibrand for Senate seat Franken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour MORE (D-Minn.) and potential Sen. Roy Moore (R-Ala.), the Senate and its ethics committee face a moment of truth. Should the committee open an investigation into allegations against Franken and potentially Moore, as has been proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats make final plea for voting rights ahead of filibuster showdown Mellman: Voting rights or the filibuster? Budowsky: To Dems: Run against the do-nothing GOP, Senate MORE (R-Ky.) and Franken himself, it will have radically reenvisioned the scope of its oversight.
Historically, the committee has interpreted its jurisdiction in very narrow terms, often punting on the hard questions and gaining a well-earned reputation as a black hole where ethics allegations go to die. While there’s no question that poor ethical behavior, sexual harassment and discrimination should be immediately investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee, there’s a larger issue at hand that will have far-reaching implications for lawmakers in the chamber: Will the Committee reverse course and reject their own past precedent, going back at least a decade, to claim jurisdiction over allegations against senators before they ran for or served in public office?
Even then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who previously chaired the Senate Ethics Committee, said of Vitter’s case, “It appears whatever might have occurred, occurred before this individual came to the Senate, therefore raising serious questions as to whether the Senate has jurisdiction over it.” So what has suddenly changed? Essentially, the Senate is looking for cover. Up to now, the systems the body has used to police itself have repeatedly proven inadequate.
Now is the moment for the Senate Ethics Committee to explicitly reject the limited scope laid out in the Vitter case and articulate a new standard through either a public letter or Senate resolution that clearly lays out under what circumstances lawmakers or staff fall under Senate Ethics Committee jurisdiction. Furthermore, the committee should commit to applying this new standard going forward and a public explanation for any actions it does, or does not take. Anything less will ensure the Senate Ethics Committee continues to earn it’s reputation as an “ethics” committee in name only.