More Members of Congress Refuse to Cooperate with Ethics Investigations

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Brightly lit dawn sky behind the illuminated dome of the Capitol in Washington DC with the pool and statues
The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Photo by Backyard Productions / Alamy Stock Photo

Recent high-profile ethics investigations have revealed that members of Congress are refusing to cooperate with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) at a troubling rate.

Out of the eight members whose investigations have been made public by the OCE in 2022, five have refused to cooperate with the investigation, giving a rate of 63% noncooperation.

This is an increase from the already high rate of noncooperation in 2021, when 60% of members did not cooperate with the OCE investigations. From 2009 to 2020, only 27% of members did not cooperate. 

As an independent, nonpartisan entity, the OCE investigates allegations against members of Congress and staff in the U.S. House of Representatives. Its jurisdiction includes any violation of ethics laws or standards of conduct.  

An integral part of the investigation is speaking with the lawmakers who may have violated the law. However, many members attempt to frustrate the investigation by refusing to provide information to OCE.  

Voters have a right to know that members of Congress are acting both ethically and transparently, and by refusing to participate in the review process, members make it harder for voters to know whether they are. It also makes it more difficult for the OCE to conduct its review effectively.  

This is exacerbated by Congress’s failure to give the OCE the tools it needs to do its job.  

Currently, when members do not cooperate, the OCE cannot compel them to. Instead, they must rely on other evidence when deciding whether there’s substantial reason to believe that a member has violated an ethics rule or law and recommend that the Ethics Committee use its subpoena power to conduct a full investigation. 

Oftentimes, the OCE will refer allegations to the Ethics Committee because they cannot fully assess whether there has been a violation because of a member’s lack of cooperation.  

For example, the OCE referred its two most recent investigations to the Ethics Committee because the members’ lack of cooperation made the OCE unable “to fully assess whether and to what extent” the members violated ethics laws and rules.  

Members of Congress should not be able to derail an investigation to avoid accountability for their unethical actions. House leadership in both parties should direct their members to cooperate with the OCE.

Beyond recreating the expectation of cooperation, Congress should allow the OCE to make reports about lawmakers who refuse to cooperate public immediately. This way, voters will be given the knowledge that their member tried to impede an OCE investigation without the significant delay mandated by the current rules.   

Finally, rather than allowing members of Congress to hinder investigations by not cooperating, Congress should amend the obstruction of Congress law to create penalties for individuals who do not cooperate with an OCE investigation. 

 

Danielle is a legal counsel on CLC's ethics team.
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