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The U.S. House Committee on Ethics, created in 1967, is unique. The Committee is the only standing committee of the House whose membership is evenly divided between each political party. The Committee includes five members of each party. Also, unlike other committees, the day-to-day work of the Committee on Ethics is conducted by a staff that is nonpartisan by rule.
Under House rules, the Committee has the jurisdiction to administer travel, gift, financial disclosure, outside income, and other regulations; advise members and staff; issue advisory opinions and investigate potential ethics violations. Ethics rules and regulations have grown substantially since the 1960s.
Questions about ethical conduct and the enforcement of ethics rules have been around since the establishment of the first Congress. In 1798, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont spat on Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut during a vote. The entire House heard evidence in the case of “disorderly behavior” and a motion to expel Lyon fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed.
The Constitution authorizes the House to discipline its members. However, the House had no uniform or consistent mechanism for self-discipline until the 1960s. Some allegations of misconduct were investigated in an ad hoc manner by special committees, and some issues went directly to the floor of the House.
Questions about official misconduct and the need for a source of reliable, accessible information led to the creation of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in 1967. At the start of the 112th Congress, in 2011, the name was changed to the Committee on Ethics.
Under House Rule X, the Committee is authorized to enforce standards of conduct for members, officers and employees; to investigate alleged violations of any law, rule or regulation; and to make recommendations to the House for further action. The Committee has sole jurisdiction over the interpretation of the Code of Official Conduct.
The House has added to or changed its rules of conduct several times. In 1977, the House adopted the first financial disclosure rules and limits on outside income, gifts, the franking privilege and foreign travel. Rules were also modified by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 and the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, which included a ban on honoraria, among other statutory changes.
An Office of Advice and Education, with its own director who reports to the chief counsel, was established within the Committee in 1990 under the Ethics Reform Act. The office is responsible for providing information and guidance to Members and staff, responding to requests for advisory opinions and conducting annual ethics training.
An Ethics Reform Task Force’s recommendations were adopted by the House in 1997, which mandated a nonpartisan staff for the committee, and reduced Committee membership from 14 to 10 while creating a pool of 20 members who could serve on investigative subcommittees as needed.
In 2008, the House created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent entity within the House to accept complaints of wrongdoing from the public, review such allegations and submit recommendations to the Committee on Ethics.
The Committee’s responsibilities for training, guidance and investigations have grown in recent years. During the 112th Congress, the Committee started or continued fact-gathering in 96 separate investigations, resolved 69 matters without forming an investigative subcommittee, and created or continued three investigative subcommittees. The Committee filed 14 reports with the House totaling more than 1,700 pages on various investigative matters.
At the beginning of the 113th Congress, Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas was appointed Chairman and Representative Linda Sánchez of California was reappointed as Ranking Member of the Committee.
A more detailed history of the Committee is available in the Congressional Research Service report below. It includes discussion of the Committee’s jurisdiction and procedures, changes in ethics standards, and a list of all members who have served on the Committee.