New House ethics chairman Mike Conaway has what may be worst job in Congress

The Texas congressman was willing to publicly discuss -- just this once -- why he took on the worst job in Congress and what he hopes to accomplish.

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway's new role is the job everybody hates, a necessary evil, a thankless task, a real drag, a crucial post, or all of the above, depending on who you ask.

The Midland Republican's work as chairman of the House Ethics Committee won't lead to shiny new legislation to tout in his district, goodwill among his peers, or interesting fodder for dinner-table conversation.

Unlike other leadership posts in Congress, there's no jockeying for this chairmanship, even though the committee has far reaching powers and can hold a lawmaker's future in its hands.

The panel polices representatives and House staff members, and also advises and educates them about the ethical ways of doing things. In short, the famously secretive committee deals with Capitol Hill's dirty laundry and tries to steer lawmakers and staff clear of creating a pile of it in the first place.

In an exclusive and rare interview for an ethics committee chairman -- who traditionally stay silent about their duties -- Conaway explained what his new role means.

"All of us benefit from an improvement in the reputation of Congress," said Conaway, a certified public accountant who is heading into his fifth year on the ethics committee. "By being part of the committee charged with enforcing a code of conduct, I am hopeful I can help improve the view the public has of the House and how it operates."

Members of Congress can serve up to six years on the ethics committee, but the limit can be extended for a chairman, according to committee rules. Conaway replaces Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala., who left the panel after two years as chairman and six as a panel member.

But who would want an extension?

"The ethics committee is one of those committees that members hate being on," said Sean Theriault, associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "People just try to avoid it all costs."

Conaway spoke of the difficulty of sitting in judgment of his peers and enduring a flood of criticism just after he served on an investigative subcommittee looking into alleged wrongdoing committed by Rep. Charlie Rangel in 2010. The New York Democrat committed 11 ethics violations connected to fundraising and personal finances, the panel found.

So why did Conaway go on to become chairman of the committee? House Speaker John Boehner asked him to do it, for one thing. And, Conaway said, he wanted to take on the often-thankless task to "do the best I can."

While it's a tough assignment, rewards could come later for doing the job everybody hates.

"Party leadership is grateful to them," Theriault said." "Usually it's a stepping stone to bigger assignments."

Watchdog groups have questioned the effectiveness of the committee.

"We think the whole concept of members of Congress kind of sitting in judgment and being the cop on the beat for other members of Congress just doesn't work," Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Boyle said.

Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division, said the lack of transparency in the committee's work is a problem.

"It's been critiqued over the years as in many ways being a black hole," Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch Division, said.

Conaway said he has two big goals as chairman: to move investigations and complaints expeditiously and fairly, through the committee, and to provide exemplary advice and education.

The panel's 2012 year-end report shows the committee, which meets behind closed doors, is busy.

Last year, it churned out more than 900 formal advisory opinions on ethic rules, and fielded more than 40,000 informal requests for guidance by telephone, email and in person.

It pumped out 23 ethics memos to the House, provided training to about 10,000 members of Congress and Capitol Hill employees, and took in an avalanche of paperwork -- more than 6,000 financial disclosure statements and amendments.

In a departure from his usual openness with Scripps reporters, Conaway agreed only to answer questions via email. Members of the secretive committee generally don't talk about what they do.

A Washington defense lawyer who has represented scores of people in front of the committee over 30 years said that's how it should be.

Like grand-jury deliberations, the committee's process should be kept from public view so someone who is cleared doesn't get pilloried in the press, attorney Stanley M. Brand said.

The ethics panel is the only standing committee in Congress with members equally divided between both parties. With five Republicans and five Democrats, it requires bipartisanship to take action.

"An ethics violation in that regard has a lot more heft to it, given that Democrats and Republicans agreed that there was cause," said Timothy Nokken, assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University.

Conaway said

a tie or fewer than a majority of six votes means a motion fails and no action is taken.

"Every committee vote in the last Congress was unanimous," he said.

(Reach Scripps Washington correspondent Trish Choate at choatet@shns.com. )

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