Parliament and its discontents
The House needs to have a robust procedure to determine lawmakers’ misconduct, violations of ethical norms
On December 8, the Lok Sabha expelled one of its members, Mahua Moitra, from the membership of the House. The minister for parliamentary affairs Pralhad Joshi, moved a motion for her expulsion. It stated that Moitra’s conduct (of sharing her parliamentary credentials and accepting money and amenities from businessman Darshan Hiranandani) was unbecoming of a Member of Parliament (MP).
Moitra was not allowed to make a speech, and amid a walkout by opposition MPs, the House passed the motion expelling her from the 17th Lok Sabha. Moitra, later, called the process a witch hunt. She stated that there was no proof of any money exchange; the testimony against her in the ethics committee was motivated and contradictory; she was not allowed to cross-question her accusers and was held guilty of a code of ethics that did not exist.
This entire chapter in our functioning of Parliament has been controversial. Politics and personality have overshadowed the process. Our Constitution empowers Parliament to make its own rules for conducting business. The authority to expel one of its members for misconduct is a consequence of this power. And since Parliament self-regulates itself, the extreme step of taking away the membership of an elected representative should be done by a process beyond reproach. The Opposition’s reaction to the current instance of expulsion points to gaps in the process of deciding on MPs’ ethical conduct.
The legislatures of two democracies, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), have pointers on dealing with questions of misconduct and ethical violations by elected representatives. Let us start with the US Congress. On December 1, the US House of Representatives expelled New York Republican Geroge Santos from its membership. The expulsion came after roughly a nine-month investigation into campaign fraud, financial disclosure violations and allegations of sexual misconduct by him.
Two different offices examined the complaints. One was the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent, non-partisan office comprising lawyers and investigators with expertise in ethics law. Established in 2008, this office receives and examines complaints against members of the House and Congressional staffers. After a detailed examination, it sends its recommendation to the Ethics Committee. It also publishes detailed statistics about the complaints it receives and the actions it takes on them.
The second office to examine complaints against Santos was the House Ethics Committee. It had received complaints from other members, a referral from the OCE and a resolution from the House of Representatives to investigate the Santos affair. The Committee appointed an investigative subcommittee, which interviewed 40 witnesses and received 1,72,000 pages of documents. It also allowed Santos to present a statement to the subcommittee, which he declined.
The investigative committee found that Santos “sought to fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit”. The Ethics Committee’s report resulted in the House of Representatives considering a proposal to expel Santos. The US Constitution places a high bar for removing a member of Congress. It requires that two-thirds of the members of the concerned House should agree to such a proposal. In the Santos case, the first two attempts at removal had failed; in the third attempt, 105 members of his party joined with 206 democrats to expel him.
The UK parliament also has an extensive mechanism for overseeing that its MPs adhere to a code of conduct. It maintains a public Register of Interests, where MPs must declare earnings, hospitality, and gifts they received during their parliamentary duties. An independent officer called the Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards scrutinises this register and examines complaints against MPs. A Standards Committee of MPs reviews the work of the Commissioner and recommends any action to be taken against an MP.
In 2009, after the expenses scandal (House of Commons MPs reimbursing personal expenses from parliament), the UK also passed a law setting up an Independent Parliament Standards Authority to regulate the pay and pensions of MPs and their staff. In addition to independent mechanisms for receiving and investigating complaints, the US and UK parliaments also provide detailed guidelines for their members to follow. For example, earlier this year in the US, the OCE referred a matter to the House Ethics Committee, where it found that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might have violated the gifting rules by accepting make-up services, handbag, jewellery and a dress to wear at the charity Met Gala in 2021.
In India, the Rajya Sabha’s Ethics Committee has defined a code of conduct for its MPs. The code specifies that Rajya Sabha MPs should not accept any benefits for their parliamentary interventions. It also mentions that in cases of a conflict between their private interest and public duty, they should resolve it by favouring the duty to their public office. Rajya Sabha MPs must also fill out a Register of Members Interests on similar lines as the UK parliament. This code and register applies to Rajya Sabha MPs and not to Lok Sabha members since the directly elected House has yet to incorporate these provisions in its rules.
In 1951, our Provisional Parliament faced the first case of one of its members, HG Mudgal, indulging in conduct derogatory to the dignity of the House. Mudgal was allowed to make a passionate defence, and then he resigned before the House could expel him. The committee which had examined his conduct had urged for a code of conduct for MPs. This newspaper’s editorial then supported the need for such a code, stating that the episode “...points to the possibility of marginal cases arising in which it would be as difficult for members to choose their lines of action as it would be for others to pronounce on their desirability or otherwise. But on one point there cannot be any misapprehension. For any member to champion particular causes and interests on accepting monetary or other considerations from the parties concerned will be poison to the fount of democracy”.
Seventy-two years later, as public debate focuses on a similar question, it is time for Parliament to have a robust procedure for determining MPs’ misconduct and violations of ethical norms. Such a process will uphold Parliament’s dignity, become an effective tool in protecting its legislative integrity and quell any apprehensions about its decisions.
Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research. The views expressed are personal