* updated below *
The U.S. Congress may be in a "lame duck" session, but it's finding plenty of time to discipline some of its own members. And, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) is in the midst of it all as a member of a key subcommittee of the House Ethics Committee.
Technically, the Ethics Committee is called the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
In July, Welch was appointed to a special adjudicative committee with seven other committee members to examine whether Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Rep. Maxine Waters violated House ethics rules.
A special investigative panel of the Ethics Committee alleged Rangel committed a wide range of abuses, including failure to report rental income on a Dominican Republic villa, misuse of his congressional stationery for fund raising for an education center, and his use of three rent-controlled New York apartments.
The subcomittee found Rangel guilty on most of the ethics charges. It's unclear what punishment, if any, Rangel will receive.
On November 29, the adjudicatory subcommittee will hold a hearing on the charges filed against Waters, which include allegations that she secured meetings between federal officials and a bank to which her husband had financial ties. The intent of the meetings was to help the bank receive federal bank bailout funds.
"It's an immense amount of work," Welch told Seven Days during a brief phone interview. Welch also serves on two other powerhouse panels — the House Committee on Oversignt and Government Reform and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Welch serves on the Adjudicatory Subcommittee with Reps. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Kathy Castor (D-FL), Mike Conaway (R-TX), Charles Dent (R-PA) and Gregg Harper (R-MS). Also on the committee is Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and the ranking Republican Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX).
Welch was assigned to the committee by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Unlike most House committees, the Ethics Committee slots are assigned and not sought out by individual members. Probably for good reason. It's also one of the few, if not only, committees that is equally balanced between Republicans and Democrats — no matter who is in charge.
"None of us who serve on this committee asks to be on it," Welch told Seven Days. "It's an assignment, and because of the balance on the committee between the two parties it is genuinely bipartisan. We all understand the gravity of the responsibility that we have with this committee; this institution is important to the American public and it's important we do our job well because the American people hold it in such low regard."
Welch, who cannot speak publicly about the panel's deliberations or actions, said the panel's dual roles are like any courtroom judge and jury: weigh the evidence justly while at the same time treating the accused fairly.
"Our job is to sift through the evidence and focus on the facts and not the politics," said Welch. "Our job is to uphold the ehthical standards of congress and when an individual member crosses the line and you have to be fair to the individual but at the same time call it as you see it."
Welch was appointed to the Ethics Committee in early 2009 and subsequently returned $19,000 in donations from Rangel; not all ethics panel members returned Rangel's campaign cash.
During Rangel's brief testimony before the committee — where he told the panel his lawyers had abandoned him — Welch compared Rangel's predicament to that of the characters in Bleak House, the Charles Dickens novel. That literary reference made for an interesting post over at the New York Times' City Room blog — where reporter Andy Newman asked several Dickens scholars to assess Welch's analogy.
Overall, the Times gave Welch a B-plus. Not sure if the Grey Lady grades on a curve.
Rangel, on the other hand, may not fare quite as well. The committee found Rangel guilty on nearly all of the charges. The House will decide what he'll face as punishment, but despite some of the egregious findings it's not expected that Rangel will get more than a letter of reprimand or a formal censure.
In other words, no explusion, no fines and no jail time.
Which, apparently, is OK in his home district, where he won 80 percent of the vote on Election Day.
After Waters, it's unclear if the House Ethics Committee will conduct any further hearings before this session of Congress comes to a close. By December 20, it will determine whether it will take further action on other pending cases involving Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Eliot Engel (D-NY), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) and Joe Wilson (R-SC). The latter famously shouted "You lie!" during Pres. Barack Obama's State of the Union speech.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington has compiled a list of House members and Senators who are under investigtion, or likely investigation. You can read that list here.
It's also not clear if Welch will be re-assigned to the committee in the next Congress.
This is Welch's first term on the committee, and he can serve up to three terms before being term-limited off the panel. Pelosi, who'll slide into the minority leader position come January, will appoint members to the committee.
* update *
According to a report posted to The Hill website this afternoon, the House Ethics Panel voted 9-1 to formally censure Rangel, which is the harshest punishment handed down by Congress (after expulsion).
Here's a link to the Hill story.
During the open deliberation, Welch did get a chance to castigate Rangel for his actions and cautioned his colleagues that any harsh action they take would not likely be the end of Rangel's travails, nor would it be the end of the public's low opinion of Congress.
"The facts are pretty simple, he should not have used his frank, his staff or his office" to solicit donations for a library in his name or donations from individuals and organizations with business before the House Ways & Means Committee, said Welch.
At one point, Welch turned to Rangel and listed his many accomplishments and accolades during his 40 years in Congress as well as a being awarded the Purple Heart and Gold Star during the Korean War. When Welch completed both his castigation, and his praise, of Rangel he asked the embatled congressman if he'd like to address the panel.
At that point, Rangel seemed to struggle to find words and at one point appeared to wipe away tears and begin to choke up.