WASHINGTON – Many of them have become household names: Rep. George Santos, Sen. Bob Menendez, former Rep. Charlie Rangel. The list goes on.
Members of Congress facing allegations of engaging in brazen corruption often land in the center of very public scandals, then subsequently come up against the wrath of the media and their colleagues alike. But even amid widespread vocal outcry, most lawmakers have been less keen to act legislatively on ethically questionable behavior that has not been prohibited by law.
A 2021 Pew Research Center study found that two in three Americans agreed with the phrase “most politicians are corrupt,” and according to a similar New York Times/Siena College poll, 68% of registered voters surveyed in 2022 expressed that the U.S. government “mainly works to benefit powerful elites,” and not “ordinary people.”
Some lawmakers have identified the problem, but have yet to pick up traction on reform despite recent allegations. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has long advocated for stronger ethics standards throughout the federal government, said the response to corruption in Congress has been “very crisis-driven.”
Warren added that despite her repeated attempts at enacting legislative reform, “there just hasn’t been much appetite for change.”
Most recently, Menendez, the Democrat from New Jersey, has faced broad calls to resign after being indicted on federal bribery charges and allegedly conspiring to act as a foreign agent for Egypt.
Santos, the freshman Republican from New York, has been the target of many jokes made both in the chambers of Congress and on late-night comedy shows after being indicted on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements to Congress.
A motion to expel Santos from the House of Representatives was introduced by his New York GOP colleagues in early November but failed to reach the necessary two-thirds vote threshold. Just a few weeks later, a new resolution to expel Santos was introduced after the House Ethics Committee released a damning report detailing the findings of its investigation into the disgraced Congressman.
The report revealed evidence that Santos violated several federal laws and stole from his campaign, using money from donors to pay for personal expenses, including Botox and his account on OnlyFans, an online service used primarily by sex workers who produce pornography in exchange for paid subscriptions.
The second resolution to expel Santos succeeded by a vote of 311-114 on Dec. 1, making the freshman New York congressman just the sixth ever lawmaker in Congress to be expelled.
While Santos has recently become a figurehead of corrupt government officials after committing especially egregious ethical violations, he is hardly alone in Congress. Just days after the Ethics Committee published findings in the Santos investigation, RawStory investigative reporter Alexandria Jacobson uncovered 10 more members of Congress who violated financial disclosure requirements in 2022.
The additional lawmakers in violation are Reps. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., Ami Bera, D-Calif., Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, John Rose, R-Tenn., Shri Thanedar, D-Mich., Dina Titus, D-Nev., Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-U.S. Virgin Islands.
Even after waves of disapproval and publicity following scandals, however, no new laws or concerted attempts to adopt more scrutinizing ethics standards have taken root this term in Congress.
In recent years, Warren has introduced a steady stream of anti-corruption-related bills targeting all branches of government, including the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act (2018, 2020), the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act (2022) and the Presidential Conflict of Interests Act (2023).
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., said eventually he may also consider introducing anti-corruption legislation, but “never thought it would come to that kind of place” where addressing the type of behavior detailed in the Menendez indictment would be necessary.
“It’s sad that we need to have a law to say you shouldn’t have bribe gold bars in a mattress,” Fetterman said.
Fetterman has been the most vocal advocate for Menendez’s resignation in the Senate. He appeared receptive to the idea of working with Warren to tackle ethics violations, saying he is “open to anything,” especially if the reform is introduced by “somebody like Senator Warren.”
In an interview with Medill News Service, Warren also decried the so-called revolving door that allows private sector professionals to become government officials who regulate their one-time bosses and then return to private sector firms with additional benefits.
“The revolving door, which spins between federal government and private industry, and literally puts people from private industry in government, temporarily creating rules that favor their former and future employers, and then they spin back onto the private side with big pay bumps and promotions, that’s wrong. And we need to close that down,” Warren said.
Ethics reform also has some vocal advocates among leadership in the House of Representatives. Several of Warren’s recent bills were co-authored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who champions and directs the push behind anti-corruption reform in the House of Representatives.
Jayapal said leaders of the push for ethical reform in Congress like herself have “had some success” in assembling a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to support legislation.
She added, however, that those who have united to tackle corruption in government have faced obstacles “across the board” from members who have different interests, “and their own stock portfolios in some cases,” she murmured behind a chuckle and an eye roll.
“People sometimes look at things and say, ‘Well, this isn’t consistent with where I am right now,’” Jayapal said. “And what we try to say is, ‘You don’t have to be perfect. Once we enforce it, then everyone will be on the same page.’”
While touting bipartisan support for ethics reform legislation, Jayapal specifically mentioned her bill to ban members of Congress from owning or trading individual stocks, co-authored by Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., and Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., which goes further than previously passed legislation, like the STOCK Act of 2012.
Buck said members of Congress owning individual stocks is “an obvious conflict of interests,” which has shown itself when lawmakers make “profits off of insider information.” He added that the bill is stuck in committee and had not been made a priority by previous leadership.
“I asked (former Speaker Kevin McCarthy) to work on it. He said he would,” Buck said. “It has not been worked on.”
Just two months after Buck introduced this bill with Jayapal and Rosendale, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., also introduced legislation seeking to ban individual stock trading.
Gaetz, an outspoken advocate for anti-corruption reform in Congress, said he expects members to try to raise the threshold to file a Motion to Vacate the Speakership after he was able to bring a resolution to oust McCarthy by himself in early October.
The congressman said he will push House leadership to adopt several accountability measures, including his bill to ban individual stock trading, in any MTV negotiations.
“I care a lot about banning members of Congress from becoming lobbyists or registered foreign agents. And I care a lot about stopping the influence of lobbyists and PAC money in the decision-making here,” Gaetz said.
Despite the bipartisan support these measures have accrued among some of the most notable members of the House and Senate, however, the bills have not had much success in gaining enough traction to pass through either chamber of Congress.
Gaetz said he is optimistic his efforts will be taken more seriously under Mike Johnson’s speakership. He worked with Johnson for seven years on the House Judiciary Committee, where he said he grew confident in the Speaker’s commitment to ethics reform.
But, according to Gaetz, it has been difficult to pass any accountability measures in the recent past because leadership has not been receptive or committed to change.
“Kevin McCarthy would be one obstacle,” Gaetz said. “…When we talked to him about it, he did like he does on most issues: paid it lip service and then did nothing.”
Senators seeking to reduce the influence of corporations and special interest groups in politics have also faced significant pushback from leadership in their chamber.
On Oct. 31, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced the Ending Corporate Influence in Elections Act of 2023, directly challenging the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which established that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money in candidate elections.
Many of the latest ethical criticisms hurled at members of Congress stem from the pursuit and flow of donations from big corporations who seek to influence elections and policies.
In the aftermath of Hawley’s proposal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who uses the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC he is closely affiliated with, to help elect Republicans to Congress, erupted into an animated argument behind closed doors in opposition to the senator’s proposal to ban publicly-traded companies from giving to Super PACs, making independent campaign expenditures, creating political ads or engaging in other communications directly involved with a candidate’s campaign, according to a Punchbowl News report and additional Medill News Service reporting.
McConnell also reportedly asserted that money from his Super PAC is the “only reason” that Hawley won his election to the Senate in 2018. McConnell reportedly threatened other Senate Republicans that if they signed onto or supported Hawley’s bill, there would be “heavy incoming” against them.
The minority leader’s office declined to comment on the bill or the ensuing argument.
Hawley said in an interview with Medill News Service that extracting “big corporate money” from campaigning and politics is imperative. A Yale-educated lawyer, Hawley also questioned the constitutional basis for McConnell’s argument and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission itself.
“(McConnell) is totally dead wrong about it. He’s dead wrong about the Constitution.” Hawley said. “There is no originalist case for saying that for-profit business corporations should be able to give political contributions. It was totally unknown at the time of the founding. No principle of the First Amendment requires it. I’m frankly not even sure that Citizens United requires it, but to the extent it does, it’s wrong.”
Hawley added that corporations also have “monopoly power” over the U.S. economy, sending American jobs overseas and further harming working-class voters. He then sounded the alarm against corporate attempts to increase influence on politicians and power over voters.
A recent Pew survey published in September revealed that 73% of U.S. adults believe lobbyists and special interest groups have “too much influence” in the “decisions members of Congress make.” By contrast, the polling shows that 70% of U.S. adults believe the voters in their districts who elect representatives and senators have “too little influence.”
Researchers also found that younger adults are less likely to have faith in democratic processes and the effect of their votes on election results.
Freshman Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., the first member of Generation Z elected to Congress, said lawmakers, and people in general, will always hesitate to “add more rules to themselves.”
Frost expressed concern about the Senate’s ability to bring anti-corruption legislation to a vote even if it were to pass in the House. He also questioned whether a Speaker of the House who supports ethics reform enough to bring it to the floor for a vote could even be elected in the current state of Congress.
The freshman representative added that he does have hope, however, that reform may be passed in the near future because “the composition of this institution is changing quickly.”
“It seems like it’s not just about ideology. It seems like it’s also a generational thing,” Frost said. “And I think that’s important to call out because that means that there might be good opportunity over the next decade to really pass some good reforms.”