The job no GOP senator wants: ‘I’d rather have a root canal’

A prime chairmanship is poised to come open in the Senate next year. The problem? No GOP senators seem to want it. 

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is set to retire in approximately a month, creating an opening atop the Senate Ethics Committee, a behind-the-scenes panel responsible for enforcing standards of behavior for senators and their staff and investigating potential violations of federal law or the Senate’s rules. 

Isakson, who has chaired the committee for nearly five years, told The Hill that he doesn’t know who his successor will be, but encouraged his colleagues to accept the chairmanship if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asks them. 

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“It’s an honor to do it, and if asked, they ought to,” he said. 

But GOP senators who spoke with The Hill, including current members of the committee, had a near universal response when asked if they wanted to take over the Ethics Committee: Thanks, but no thanks. 

“Uh, I’m going to say probably not,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of GOP leadership, laughing when asked if she would like to chair the committee. “I don’t think that’s a sought after position.” 

The lack of enthusiasm comes as the normally secretive committee has had high-profile investigations in recent years, putting a spotlight on why finding Isakson’s successor could prove difficult: No one relishes investigating their colleagues. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), another member of leadership, said he doesn’t know who will take over the committee. Asked if he was interested, he added an emphatic, drawn out, “nooooo.” 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who previously served as vice chairman, acknowledged that it’s up to the leader, but he’s not interested. 

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“I served my time on the Ethics Committee and I think I’ll give somebody else the opportunity,” he said. 

The decision about who will lead the committee rests with McConnell, who previously tapped Isakson to take over as chairman when Republicans took back the majority in 2015. 

A GOP aide said conversations had not yet started about who will succeed Isakson, who announced that he would step down at the end of December due to ongoing health issues. 

Several Republicans who currently oversee other committees also indicated they had no interest in taking on Ethics.

Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he would rather undergo a dental procedure. 

“Are you kidding? Are you kidding? I’d rather have a root canal,” he said. 

Asked if he wanted to take over the committee, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) responded: “Oh no, no, no, but I’m sure that the leadership will put somebody in there that’s solid, good, substantive person. I like what I’m doing.” 

“I would like to stay as chairman of the Appropriations Committee,” Shelby continued, before cupping his hand over his mouth and adding, “so would most of the other senators.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) started laughing when asked if he was interested in chairing the Ethics Committee, saying “absolutely not. Absolutely not.” 

Grassley noted that he’s currently chairman of the Finance Committee. When told that Isakson chairs two committees, Grassley remarked: “He does? Well, don’t tell anybody else that.” 

Isakson is the only GOP senator to oversee two panels: Ethics and Veterans Affairs. 

Veterans Affairs, unlike Appropriations, Armed Services and Finance, also isn’t considered an “A” committee under Senate GOP caucus rules.

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Ethics also isn’t considered a “standing” committee under the chamber’s rules, a technical designation that places fewer restrictions on who leadership can pick for the role while still complying with Senate GOP caucus rules.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) — who oversee the Aging, Judiciary and Banking Committees, respectively — also passed on taking over the Ethics gavel. 

The panel, unlike most Senate committees, is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, who have three members each. 

The two other GOP members, Sens. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), would on paper be obvious potential successors for Isakson. Neither, however, seemed particularly interested. 

Roberts, who is retiring at the end of 2020, said it was up to McConnell. Asked if he wanted to be the chairman he noted that he was likely stuck on the committee either way. 

“I’ve been on the damn committee for now, what, 22 years? It’s a Senate record, everybody else gets on and gets off, and they won’t let me get off,” he said, before heading into an elevator. 

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Risch, asked if he wanted to be the next chairman, was more direct: “I can only tell you that I sure hope not.” 

The Ethics Committee normally flies below the radar. According to its annual 2018 report, released in January of this year, the committee received 138 allegations of Senate rules violations. It opened a preliminary inquiry into 16 of those allegations. 

But its job as the chamber’s own watchdog also puts its members in the middle of high-profile scandals involving their own colleagues. 

In 2018, the panel made headlines when it “severely admonished”  Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in a public letter, saying he had broken Senate rules, federal law and “applicable standards of conduct.”  

It was the first time the committee had publicly admonished a senator since 2012.

Isakson acknowledged that chairing the committee can at times be awkward because you’re responsible for investigating colleagues, or their staffs, that you have to work with on a day-to-day basis. 

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“Well, sometimes you’re asked to do things you’d rather not have to do,” he said, “because you’re dealing with your colleagues.” 

For example, in 2017, the panel opened an investigation into then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who ultimately resigned facing several allegations of sexual misconduct and unwanted touching.

McConnell also predicted in 2017 that Roy Moore, then the party’s Senate candidate in Alabama, would also automatically become entangled with the panel if he won the seat because of multiple allegations of pursuing relationships with women in their teens when he was in his 30’s.

It’s the sort of responsibility for internal policing that makes a volunteer stepping forward to lead the panel starting in January unlikely. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, acknowledged they haven’t found someone to succeed Isakson. He then spotted Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who played football in college, waiting for an elevator behind him and eagerly changed the subject. 

“Boozman!” he said, before turning back to reporters. “Have you seen his football pose?” 

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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