Senate Republicans have promised that former Alabama judge Roy Moore will face an ethics investigation if he wins Tuesday’s special election.
But the Senate Select Committee on Ethics hasn’t disciplined anyone since 2012.
Since 2007, it has issued five letters of admonition and no disciplinary sanctions, according to annual reports.
The six-member committee, chaired by Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Moore has been accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl and sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in the late 1970s. Several Republicans called on Moore to drop out of the race, but the candidate has denied all allegations and has the support and endorsement of President Donald Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Moore would “immediately have an issue with the ethics committee” upon being sworn in. Senate Republicans, citing Supreme Court precedent, believe they cannot refuse to seat him if he wins the election against Democrat Doug Jones.
“The ethics committee will have to consider the matters that have been litigated in the campaign should that particular candidate win,” McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week” earlier this month. “And I’m confident they’ll come up with the right conclusion.”
The committee has a range of penalties it can recommend to the Senate for a member, including expulsion, censure, payment of restitution, a change in seniority or positions of responsibility, public or private letters of admonition and training or education.
In its history, the Senate has expelled 15 members — one for treason and 14 for supporting the Confederate rebellion. The last expulsion occurred in 1862. The last member to face expulsion was Sen. Robert Packwood, R-Ore., who resigned in 1995 before the vote was taken.
The accusations against Moore involve incidents that took place long before he even ran for the Senate. Under its jurisdiction, the committee can “investigate allegations which may reflect upon the Senate.”
“What internal standards and rules is the Senate going to set for behavior that predates the Senate and answering the question of whether that brings dishonor on the Senate?” said Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at Common Cause, a citizen advocacy group.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said an ethics investigation would be complicated because the voters of Alabama are making their decision with full knowledge of the accusations against Moore.
“And if they elect him and then you as a Senate have ethics hearings to remove him from office or something like that, that gets more complicated,” Rubio told Fox News.
In recent weeks, the ethics committee has opened inquiries into Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Al Franken of Minnesota. Franken, who proposed that the committee review accusations of groping and forcibly kissing made against him, announced his resignation from the Senate on Thursday.
For Menendez, whose trial on federal bribery charges ended with a hung jury, the inquiry is a resumption of one that was started in 2012 but paused in 2013 due to the Justice Department’s investigation.
The committee issued two public letters of admonition in 2012 — to Sen. Tom Coburn and Bret Bernhardt, a member of Sen. Jim DeMint’s staff — for improper communications with a former staffer of Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who resigned in 2011.
Ensign quit near the end of a 22-month ethics investigation into his handling of an affair he had with a former political aide, who was the wife of another of Ensign’s political aide. The committee investigated whether he had tried to buy the silence of the husband by giving him money and “pressuring contributors and constituents” to hire him. The committee concluded that Ensign had violated the law and election laws.
In 2009, the committee issued a letter of admonition to Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., for “actions and statements reflecting unfavorably upon the Senate in connection with your appointment to and seating in the Senate.” Burris was appointed by former Illinois Gov. Robert Blagojevich.
In its letter to Burris, the committee referenced events that took place before he was sworn into the Senate. “They were inextricably linked to your appointment and therefore fall within the jurisdiction of this committee,” the letter stated.
In 2008, the committee issued letters to Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and used campaign funds to pay for legal bills, and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who contacted a U.S. attorney to ask about the timing of indictments in a pending federal grand jury investigation.
The committee was created in 1964 as the Select Committee on Standards and Conduct. It was renamed in 1977.