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Strengthen the House Ethics Process

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The House Ethics Committee has retained outside counsel to assist it with its inquiry into Representative Maxine Waters, according to a statement today. An investigative subcommittee concluded in June 2010 that there is "substantial reason to believe" that Rep. Waters inappropriately sought federal funding to bail out a bank in which her husband had a substantial financial interest. Since then, the committee's investigation has come under fire, with charges that staff engaged in a number of improper activities.

The committee is attempting to dig itself out of trouble by hiring Dorsey and Whitney attorney Billy Martin to review the allegations about the Committee's own conduct, and then (if appropriate) assist the committee with its review of the allegations against Rep. Waters. Mr. Martin has represented scandal-clad clients such as Monica Lewinsky, former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell, Larry Craig, and a number of sports celebrities including Michael Vick, Allen Iverson, and Riddick Bowe.

The appointment of Martin meets one of the two steps necessary to reform the ethics process that was identified today in Roll Call today by AEI's Norm Ornstein. In addition to appointing special counsel, he argues that  "it is time to revisit the OCE [Office of Congressional Ethics] and consider strengthening its role."

We agree. The Office of Congressional Ethics is the independent body charged by the House of Representatives with investigating ethics complaints against Members of the House of Representatives or their staff. Its recommendations are sent to the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of Members of Congress, who are responsible for engaging in further investigations and recommending punishment.

Sunlight has previously suggested strengthening disclosure surrounding the ethics process, and the Office of Congressional Ethics specifically, in our recommendations for updating the House's Rules for the 112th Congress.

At the time we wrote:

The reforms from the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act should be expanded and strengthened, and the role of public oversight and transparency needs to be put back to the center of congressional ethics. In particular, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) should have its budget doubled, at a minimum.

Also, the public ethics filings on which the OCE relies on should be affirmatively posted online without restrictions.

Additionally, there are several other changes in how these bodies should function:

  • Meetings of the House Ethics Committee should be open to the public unless it pertains to specific allegations against an individual member. This recommendation would not change the requirement that investigatory subcommittee hearings be open to the public. The OCE should make written reports available online when they are made public.
  • The Ethics Committee should publish the “written report and findings” of the OCE regardless of whether the committee vote is consistent with the recommendations of the OCE board.
  • Notice of the establishment of an investigative subcommittee should be more timely, and the subcommittee should make its findings public sooner than within one year of beginning its review of a report.

Mr. Ornstein makes these additional suggestions for consideration. "One area is to allow the chairman and ranking member of the Ethics Committee — or the Speaker and Minority Leader — to issue subpoenas on the OCE’s behalf in rare cases where an important investigation is being impeded by a key witness’s refusal to testify or provide relevant information. A second is to consider a role for OCE members or staff to present evidence directly to Ethics Committee members when an investigation reaches the stage that the Waters case has."

The unfortunate dynamics in the Ethics Committee are well known. As noted by Ornstein, either there is detente between the warring political parties that effectively stops the filing of ethics complaints, or the parties engage in filing politicized allegations. Rarely does the Committee -- and the ethics process -- function as one would hope. Strengthening OCE and enacting other transparency reforms can help ameliorate this vicious cycle. Now is the time to do so.

Statement of the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Ethics Committee Regarding The Matter of Rep. Waters