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Cleaning House: Congressional Commissioners for Standards

10 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2007 Last revised: 16 Nov 2007

Josh Chafetz

Cornell Law School


Given the profusion of congressional ethics scandals over the past two years, it is unsurprising that the new Democratic majority in the 110th Congress has made ethics reform a priority. But although both the House and the Senate have tightened their substantive rules, the way the rules are enforced has received almost no attention at all.

This Comment argues that ethics enforcement should remain within the houses of Congress themselves. Taking enforcement power away from the houses is constitutionally questionable (under the Speech or Debate Clause), structurally unwise (given general concerns about separation of powers), and institutionally problematic (as it would reinforce the public perception that Congress is simply unable to control itself). However, the congressional ethics committees have proven unwilling or unable to function as effective disciplinary bodies.

The Comment therefore proposes that each house create its own Commissioner for Standards, modeled on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in Britain. The Comment analyzes the main features of the British office and suggests a number of improvements for adoption in the United States. The institutional design described in the Comment has the dual virtues of keeping ethics enforcement within the houses of Congress while simultaneously minimizing the possibility that ethics enforcers will be captured by those they are meant to regulate.

Keywords: Congress, Parliament, ethics, Commissioner for Standards, Speech or Debate Clause, separation of powers, legislative privilege, parliamentary privilege, congressional privilege, Nolan Committee

Suggested Citation

Chafetz, Josh, Cleaning House: Congressional Commissioners for Standards. Yale Law Journal, Vol. 117, pp. 165-173, October 2007; Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 146. Available at SSRN:

Josh Chafetz (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

208 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
United States
607-255-1698 (Phone)

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