Don’t Kill the Office of Congressional Ethics


How would you feel about an investigation into steroid use among baseball players led by the Major League Baseball Player’s Union? Perhaps they could hire Rogers Clemens as chief investigator.

If you think that’s ridiculous you should look equally askance at the absurd non-statements emanating from both the House Republican and Democratic leadership on whether they will keep a successful, independent ethics body intact when the next Congress convenes.

Most of these non-statements are coming from the Republican leadership as they being confronted with previous statements regarding the Office of Congressional Ethics. The Republicans who universally opposed the creation of the office have used Democratic scandals–investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics–to bolster their cause in seeking control of the House of Representatives in this fall’s midterm elections.

The Office of Congressional Ethics has definitely pushed the boundaries of ethics enforcement in its short three year existence. The investigatory body has produced two upcoming ethics trials of prominent Democrats–Reps. Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters–and has produced a veritable snowstorm of activity at the House Ethics Committee. The committee has already admonished Rangel once this year and has taken on many other difficult questions regarding other members and potential ethical violations.

More than anything the Office of Congressional Ethics has helped to reveal to the public the patent absurdity of the self-policing oversight that members provide through the House Ethics Committee.

These absurdities included the rejection of charges in the PMA Group contributions-for-earmarks scandal based on the lack of rules, guidelines or understanding on the appropriateness of connecting campaign fundraising activities to the federal earmarking process. Oops, we just don’t have any guidelines for that.

The Office of Congressional Ethics has also injected a dose of much-needed transparency into the congressional ethics process. Reports have been posted online, arguments are voiced between the office and the House Ethics Committee and the public has learned more than previous about how ethics investigations are conducted.

Now Minority Leader John Boehner, who voted against the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2007, is dodging questions about whether he would do away with the office were he to become the next Speaker of the House. Boehner had previously stated that he wanted to “take a look” at the office come next year.

This is despite the fact that Boehner has claimed that “the most glaring promise that [Speaker Nancy Pelosi has] broken” was her promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Does Boehner have any plans to fix the ethics process or will he simply end one of the most successful, but discomfiting reforms to the ethics process in recent memory?

The same question should be asked of Speaker Pelosi: will she accede to the demands of several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who have often found themselves involved in the investigations of the Office of Congressional Ethics? As The Hill indicates, “Pelosi has indicated a willingness to change the OCE’s rules.”

If anything the independent ethics process needs to be strengthened and given more resources, not eliminated so as to protect lawmakers from greater scrutiny. Perhaps these leaders should be proposing how they will make the ethics process work towards routing out all corruption rather than dither and dodge questions.