U.S. House to Vote on Gutting Independent Ethics Body

U.S. Capitol at night

In a closed-door meeting held on a national holiday, yesterday U.S. House Republicans voted for a proposal that will gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent body created in 2008 as a response to ethics and lobbying scandals.

The full House will vote on the proposal this afternoon as a part of the Rules Package, meaning one of the first official actions of the 115th Congress will likely be to unburden themselves of a body that holds Congress to basic standards of integrity and transparency.

Especially as it follows an election in which Americans overwhelmingly voted for measures to improve our democracy and make it more accountable to citizens, this action is outrageous.

Here’s why Congress, and the American people, need and deserve a strong OCE: 

1. The House Ethics Committee doesn’t get the job done on its own. The OCE, as formulated by the House rules, acts as the independent office, and serves as an entry point for allegations of ethics violations by House members and their staffs.  The House Ethics Committee, which is traditionally tasked with this job, has proven itself incapable of effectively enforcing congressional ethics rules. The outside counsel’s report on the Committee’s botched investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) revealed a Committee riven by suspicion, staff firings and allegations of partisan bias.  

 2. The OCE is independent, consistent, professional and not marred by partisanship. In truth, the House Ethics Committee is amateur hour, crippled by rampant partisanship. Since its inception, the OCE has had a record of bipartisan agreement, which is amazing in the current atmosphere in the House of Representatives and on the Hill, generally.  Every decision to forward recommendations to the House Ethics Committee for further investigation has had unanimous bipartisan support. The office conducts its investigations in a timely manner, which is essential to be fair to members and staff. In fact, the OCE has dismissed more than half of the complaints it has received, proving the office is out only to pursue true ethical violations.

3. The OCE has restored public credibility of the congressional ethics process. The public can and should feel secure knowing that the OCE is exposing ethics violations. If enforcement of the ethics rules were left solely in the hands of the House Ethics Committee, the committee would often be found investigating itself for ethics failures.  

For example, in 2013, the House Ethics Committee failed to follow its own rules requiring lawmakers to seek pre-approval for privately funded travel. House rules require all members who want to go on trips funded by private groups to receive permission from the committee at least 30 days before the trip. USA Today uncovered in July 2015 that when 10 members and their staffers went on a May 2013 trip to Azerbaijan, the committee was not enforcing its own standard and approved the travel for these members at the last minute.

When the OCE got involved, the House Ethics Committee asked it to shut down its investigation. But the OCE uncovered that the trip, which was sponsored by several Turkish- and Balkan- American nonprofits, was improperly paid for by the state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan. The committee’s failure to detect the real source of money for the trip did a tremendous disservice to these members of Congress, and to taxpayers, who are supposed to take it on faith that the House Ethics Committee has investigated and determined the trips are being paid for by legitimate groups for legitimate purposes. Fortunately, the OCE was able to hold the House Ethics Committee accountable.

4. The OCE helps Members of Congress, too.  The OCE provides the answer to the question once posed by a former federal official who had been investigated for alleged ethics violations:  “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”  In the case of House members, the answer is clear: the OCE. When the office says there is no reason for further investigation of an alleged violation, that decision is viewed as credible both on the Hill and, as importantly, by the public. 

Meghan is CLC's Director, Digital Communications.