Disgraced New York Rep. Anthony Weiner no doubt feels the walls closing in on him, what with key fellow Democrats calling for his resignation and his once high-flying Big Apple mayoral ambitions in shambles.
But one thing the married congressman likely won't have to fear in the wake of his sexting scandal is tough love from the secretive House Ethics Committee.
"They'll take their sweet time and do just about nothing," says Melanie Sloan, who heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "The ethics committee is where ethics investigations go to die."
There is little argument that the committee, asked by Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to examine Weiner's penchant for sending lewd messages and photos to women he met online, has not been known for its speed or tough penalties.
Pelosi's call for an ethics committee examination has clear political aims: She's heading into a big election year and has to face off against Republican House Speaker John Boehner's "zero tolerance" policy on publicly misbehaving GOP members.
But the prospect of sanctions against Weiner — if he stays in office — remains a long shot.
Slow Go, No Go?
Critics note that the committee, for example, has long delayed action on a case involving Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California. That inquiry involved more-than-two-year-old questions about whether she improperly influenced federal officials on behalf of a bank in which her husband owned stock and where he once served as a board member.
Her ethics trial was postponed last year, and the committee reopened the investigation after it changed staff members. Waters has stoutly defended herself, in part, by attacking the integrity of the committee.
Democrats dropped last year's inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment by freshman Rep. Eric Massa, a New York Democrat, after he resigned. Republicans argued that the investigation should proceed anyway, recalling then-House Speaker-in-waiting Pelosi's 2006 pledge to "drain the swamp" after a spate of GOP scandals cost them the majority. They also hoped to unearth some embarrassing details about exactly when Democratic leaders learned of male staffers' sexual harassment complaints against Massa.
Ethics watchdogs note that the investigation of Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat found guilty last year by the ethics panel of breaking 11 congressional rules, including those regarding fundraising and gift bans, has been the only successful start-to-finish ethics committee investigation in recent years that ended up holding someone accountable.
With Rangel, they say, the sheer weight of the charges and evidence backing up the claims became impossible to ignore.
And when Rangel was censured and not expelled, Sloan says, it said something about the aims of the House process — one that that the indignant Rangel eventually boycotted. Though he resigned as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Rangel remains in office.
A censure, such as the one Rangel received, has been described by critics of the House process as a punishment meant for the 19th century when shame actually mattered.
But Bill Cable of the Office of Congressional Ethics, established by Pelosi in 2008 as an independent, nonpartisan House ethics review body comprising nonmembers, claims the House Ethics Committee is on a new track.
"It is a new ethics committee, and this is a new process," Cable says.
With a new staff director, and a membership that Cable says has been drained of some of the hyperpartisan atmosphere that existed toward the end of the last Congress, a more functional ethics committee may be possible.
"It's rare that Mrs. Pelosi would go as far as she did to request an investigation," Cable says. "I would not be surprised to see something happen." That could mean the House Ethics Committee forms a subcommittee to investigate, or those duties are simply taken up by the committee's chair, Rep. Jo Bonner, an Alabama Republican, and the ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Linda Sanchez of California.
Lines of Inquiry
But if Weiner survives, what would the ethics committee look into? What rules would the hapless congressman have broken by sending vulgar Twitter and Facebook messages to women he says he never met in person?
There's the issue of whether Weiner broke rules by using official government resources to engage in his sexting habit, and the overarching issue of whether he brought "discredit" upon the House.
Sloan, of the ethics watchdog agency CREW, is among those who say that though Weiner behaved "reprehensively, he didn't violate ethics rules."
Members of Congress and their staffers are allowed a fair bit of leeway in the use of government resources like phones and computers to conduct private communications that don't involve enriching themselves financially.
As for bringing discredit upon the House? Watchdogs like Sloan say that it is unclear what triggers that, given bad behavior by members of Congress in the past that has not prompted investigations or calls for resignation.
"I don't get why this is the guy who has to resign," Sloan said. "This isn't even in the same building as Rangel."
At Democracy 21, another government watchdog group, Fred Wertheimer was more circumspect.
"The standard of whether activities brought discredit on the House is a broad, general standard," he says. "And we don't know yet whether any of the activities that occurred involved the use of House and government resources."
"I'm not at this stage going to take a position on this; the process is just beginning," Wertheimer says.
Among the potential lines of inquiry for the committee: whether Weiner offered his staff to provide public relations help to women he contacted online, and whether any of the women were not of legal age.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, which can and has undertaken investigations of its own, usually stands down when the House Ethics Committee takes up a matter. Described by The New York Times as an "important new ethics cop in Washington," the OCE typically takes up matters that the committee may choose to sweep aside.
Cable declined to comment on what, if any, role the OCE anticipates in the Weiner case.
In the end, the ethics at issue may simply involve personal and moral ethics — not the rules of the House.