Will the House’s Ethics Watchdog Be Silenced?

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The future of the House of Representatives’ independent ethics watchdog is subject to speculation now that we’re again in appropriations season. Last year, despite the calls of transparency advocates and good government experts, Representative Mel Watt led a 100-member strong effort to cut the Office of Congressional Ethics’ budget by 40%. There’s likely to be a fight again this year. We believe the OCE should be strengthened, not hamstrung.

Watchdog photo taken by H. Michael Karshis (http://www.flickr.com/photos/hmk/1477367547/)The Office of Congressional Ethics came into existence in March 2008 after a series of corruption scandals prompted House leaders to explore creating a transparent, outside enforcement entity. While OCE is not as robust as originally contemplated, it plays a crucial role in ethics oversight. OCE reviews allegations of misconduct against Representatives, House staff, and officers, and refers matters to the House Committee on Ethics for further review when it finds there’s a substantial reason to believe a violation may have occurred.

OCE’s teeth come from the public release of its reports and findings (except in circumstances when neither OCE nor the Ethics Committee find wrongdoing). American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein recommended strengthening OCE by giving it the power to issue subpoenas in those rare cases “where an important investigation is being impeded by a key witness’s refusal to testify or provide relevant information.” Right now, OCE must rely on witnesses voluntarily cooperating. Ornstein also suggests that OCE members or staff be able to provide evidence directly to the Ethics Committee, and not be limited to submitting written reports

We agree, and add that OCE should have the power to lengthen its investigatory window when circumstances warrant. Its existence should be formalized into law, and its funding increased. Speaker Boehner deserves credit for retaining the OCE when Republicans came to power, as does former Speaker Pelosi for its creation, and we hope members of both parties will join together to put it on a firmer footing.

Every time the OCE does its job, it risks offending individual members of Congress. Even so, the vast majority of representatives voted to keep OCE intact last year because it strengthens the House as an institution.

Hearings in the House on legislative branch appropriations are winding down, so now is the time to make ourselves heard to keep the House’s independent ethics watchdog on the beat.

Photo credit to H. Michael Karshis

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