The Office of Congressional Ethics has a new lease on life now that the House Republican leadership has reportedly included the independent watchdog in its 112th Congress rules package. OCE’s continued existence was an open question because it has to be renewed each Congress, and many Republicans — including the incoming Speaker — opposed its creation in 2008. (In recent months, a handful of Democrats, including those under investigation for ethics violations, came out against the office. Some opposed its creation from when it was first proposed.)
Legislatures have a hard time policing themselves effectively because of inherent conflicts of interest. Similarly, any attempt to use executive branch agencies (such as the Justice Department) to enforce Congressional ethics rules raises tricky separation of powers questions. The Office of Congressional Ethics avoids both of these problems because it is a legislative entity that is independent of day-to-day congressional control. In addition, unlike the House Ethics Committee, OCE investigates complaints from the public and is required to be open and transparent about its work. And finally, the OCE’s role is appropriately limited, recognizing that Members of Congress are ultimately responsible for enforcing ethics rules.
The embrace of OCE by both parties strengthens its hand and creates a sense of permanence that future Speakers will find hard to undo. The Sunlight Foundation recommended that OCE continue to exist, as did a coalition of organizations. We are pleased to see that presumptive Speaker Boehner has stepped up to the plate.
We look forward to reviewing the proposed 112th House Rules for additional ethics reforms, and hope that the Senate will consider creating a similar watchdog.