The Office of Congressional Ethics


Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman and ranking member of the House ethics task force, will soon recommend that an independent "Office of Congressional Ethics" (OCE) be created to initiate ethics complaints against House members. If done properly, the OCE will serve to shore up the House Ethics Committee, long a toothless watchdog of House Members who seem more willing than ever to cross ethical lines. The New York Times editoralizes about this today.

One of the key features of the OCE is that if complaints against lawmakers are ultimately dismissed, the dismissals would have to be publicly disclosed. As Rep. Capuano said, "Transparency is the key to the whole thing. People have to know that the ethics process is working." We don’t know the details of the required disclosure yet, but we at Sunlight would respectfully remind Mr. Capuano that real transparency means timely disclosure in an easily accessible format on the Internet.

Although we applaud the more transparent nature of the OCE and the dismissal process, we are disappointed that outside groups will not be able to file complaints. The "independent" members of the OCE will be appointed by the two parties’ House leaders. Despite provisions designed to assure their independence, our skeptical nature leads us to wonder whether appointees-whose paycheck and prestigious job titles will in no doubt stem from their relationship with the leadership-may occasionally overlook questionable behavior by lawmakers. We need only look to the long history of the Federal Election Commission to know that so-called independent agencies often suffer from the fox guarding the henhouse syndrome. Allowing outside groups to file complaints would be one more check on the work of the ethics office and would help to restore public confidence in elected officials. We also agree with the New York Times that the new ethics office ought to have subpoena power to shore up its ability to prove-or disprove-allegations of improper behavior.

The House will have to vote on a rules change to adopt the new enforcement mechanism. It’s not too late to give House members the opportunity to vote for an Office of Ethics Enforcement that guarantees timely Internet access to its work, real investigative power, and the opportunity for outside voices to be heard.