What is perhaps an unprecedented refusal by some House Republicans to assist constituents in navigating Obamacare raises an interesting question about where principled opposition bleeds over into dereliction of duty.
Some House Republicans have already said they would not answer questions from constituents who called looking for guidance on how to get health coverage under Obamacare, as The Hill reported in June. Other GOPers, however, have come out and explicitly said they would help citizens navigating the law, saying it is “one of the primary functions of our office.”
For a law that remains poorly understood by the general public, one’s congressional representative seems a likely starting point for getting help. Good luck, if you’re in one of the districts whose congressman is taking his or her opposition to Obamacare so far as to refuse any help. But could such tactics actually be unethical, according to the House’s own rules?
“It’s not a frivolous question. There is an ethical standard that calls for members to assist constituents. That’s one of their obligations as a member,” said David Laufman, former counsel for the House Ethics Committee during the Clinton administration. “There could arguably be a violation, but it’s a somewhat nebulous area.”The House Ethics Manual, last updated in 2008 but still the functioning ethics guidance, includes this catch-all phrase:
Members, officers, and employees of the House should:
Conduct themselves at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the
That would be the broad standard House Republicans are arguably breaching if they refuse to assist constituents looking for help in accessing federal benefits, Laufman told TPM in a phone interview. But based on historical precedents, it would be unlikely for such obstructionism to lead to an investigation without an egregious set of circumstances, Laufman added.
Other experts agreed that it would take more than refusal to help on this one program for a Congress member’s conduct to be considered a genuine ethics violation. (They also questioned whether those representatives would actually live up to their promise not to help on Obamacare.)
“I’m sure constituents don’t get help from their representatives all the time. You’d have to have particular circumstances: ‘I am going to state categorically that I’m not going to help you in any way.’ I don’t think any of them are actually going to do that,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, a watchdog group, and former assistant U.S. attorney, told TPM in a phone interview. “But it is incredibly dumb. Who advertises their lack of constituent services?”
Another section of the Ethics Manual does point to a specific set of circumstances in which there could be an obvious ethics violation if a House member refused to help their constituents with the law:
A Member’s responsibility in this area is to all his constituents equally and should be pursued with diligence irrespective of political or other considerations.
That language is generally intended to prohibit lawmakers of one party from discriminating against constituents of the opposite party. So if a constituent called, asking for help getting benefits under Obamacare while making clear their support for the law, and a House member refused them on narrow partisan grounds, that would be a much more serious ethical red flag, Laufman said.
“If a constituent wanted a member’s help in contacting (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), and the member said, ‘Screw you, you didn’t vote for me,’ that would be potentially improper, if the member were offering services to Republican constituents,” he said.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with nonpartisan but progressive watchdog Public Citizen, wrote to TPM in an email that public declarations by House members that they won’t help constituents access benefits available to them under federal law is largely unprecedented.
“I have never heard of lawmakers refusing to assist constituents,” he said. “The obsession with sabotaging Obamcare shown by some congressional Republicans in their stated unwillingness to assist constituents is not so much a violation of House ethics rules as it is an abrogation of their oath to serve as a faithful representative.”
“Turning one’s back on constituents and refusing to help them is much more a sign of unfitness for public office, and constituents are going to see that,” Holman said.
Even if House Republicans are walking up to that ethical line — but not quite crossing it — it may not matter if the Ethics Committee will never call them on it.
“The Ethics Committee typically doesn’t police in minutiae the manner in which members assist their constituents or whether they did a good job,” Laufman said. “They just don’t want to engage in that kind of police oversight over the quality of a member’s casework.”