Lawmakers Refuse To Cooperate with Ethics Investigations, Hindering Accountability

A dark hazy shot of the capitol building seen next to its reflection in another building.
The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC, on Sunday, February 21, 2021. Credit: Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Alamy Live News

This blog was authored by Delaney Marsco, senior legal counsel, ethics at CLC, and Ben Phillips, a CLC 2020 summer intern. 

Congressional ethics enforcement continues to deteriorate as members of Congress refuse to fully cooperate with ethics investigations conducted by an independent investigatory body, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

Earlier this month the OCE published yet another report of an investigation where the member, Rep. Steven Palazzo, refused to cooperate, despite mountains of evidence that he violated House rules and federal law. Stonewalling the OCE will only result in less ethics enforcement and damage to the public’s trust in government.

This lack of cooperation with the OCE, an independent ethics body designed to be bipartisan, is a systemic issue that is only getting worse. To avoid further damage to public trust, our elected officials should openly cooperate with investigations. The rate of members refusing to cooperate with the OCE investigations is at an all-time high.

That members are refusing to help shine a light on their own possibly unethical conduct matters: if members of Congress are not held accountable for their actions, then the American people will continue to lose faith in the institution.

Since its creation in 2008, the OCE has produced reports on 69 members of the House of Representatives and in over 33% of cases, the representatives being investigated refused to cooperate.

A CLC study found that rates of cooperation with the OCE’s investigations have also declined in the years since the office was created, from 85% during the 111th Congress, to 25% in the 116th Congress.

The rate of cooperation has been lower than it was the year before in every year except one. This is true for both Democrats and Republicans.

Congress created the OCE as an independent check on Congress’ power to oversee its own members. However, Congress failed to give the OCE all of the tools necessary to do its job.

Most notably, Congress has not given the OCE subpoena power, which would allow the OCE to compel witnesses to cooperate with investigations.

And Congress failed to include congressional offices, like the OCE, in the obstruction of Congress statute, meaning a subject of an OCE investigation can seemingly intentionally mislead the office with few consequences.

The result of this system is that members refuse to cooperate with the OCE when it investigates many of the most egregious violations in Congress. This is not what real accountability looks like.

Members who refused to cooperate with the OCE’s investigations are of all political and ideological stripes.

Former California representative Duncan Hunter, who was investigated for illegally furnishing a lavish lifestyle with campaign funds, failed to cooperate with the OCE (he later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 months in prison).

Former North Carolina representative Mark Meadows did not cooperate with an OCE investigation of allegations that he improperly paid the salary of a staffer who was demoted after allegations of sexual assault. 

Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Lori Trahan, Silvestre Reyes, Robert Andrews, and Gregory Meeks all failed to cooperate with investigations for improperly spending or receiving campaign or official funds for their personal benefit.

Combatting this troubling trend requires intentional steps.

  1. Congressional leaders should put pressure on their members to cooperate with the OCE, creating an expectation of cooperation that will enhance accountability and transparency.
  2. Congress should revise the OCE rules so that if a member of Congress does not cooperate, the OCE reports can be made public immediately, instead of after the significant delay that the current rules mandate. The public reports will provide notice to voters, and representatives who choose not to cooperate will no longer be free of consequence from their colleagues and their constituents. 
  3. Congress should amend the obstruction law such that impeding an OCE investigation has the same penalty as impeding any other congressional investigation. 

Public confidence in the integrity of democratic institutions is one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy. At a time when our democratic institutions are continually undermined and public faith in them is thin, Congress should set an example and restore some modicum of trust in itself by ensuring its members cooperate with the OCE investigations.

Delaney's work focuses on government ethics, accountability, and transparency.