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Posted November 20, 2009 by Meredith McGehee

Fault Ethics Committee, Not OCE

The following opinion piece appeared in The Hill on November 20, 2009.

Word on the Hill is that several members of the Congressional Black Caucus are going to get a pass from the House ethics committee on a trip they took to the Caribbean underwritten by corporations, regardless of what the new travel rules say. Apparently the previous ethics committee green-lighted the trip.

Along with formally dismissing the complaint, the committee is likely to issue another rebuke of the Office of Congressional Ethics. The repeated and unfounded public criticisms of OCE are worrisome.

While it was heartening to learn, by accident, that the ethics committee is looking into questions concerning the conduct of more than 30 members and staff it is likely the presence of the OCE that has prompted the committee’s increased activity. However, it is certainly premature to claim, as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) did, that the information released shows that the ethics process is working.

Exhibit A is the committee’s handling of its investigation of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) for failing to reveal his ties to a witness he arranged to have testify before a committee Graves sits on. The Graves matter brings to light three serious concerns about a process that cannot be described as “fixed.”

First, a fair reading of the report on Graves puts the committee’s conclusion in question. Should he (and by extension, other members) have been advised to disclose relationships with witnesses in the future? Yes. Was, in this case, a minor admonishment sufficient? Probably. Instead, Graves has boasted about his exoneration. It is disturbing that the ethics committee can look at the facts in the report and conclude that his conduct didn’t merit even a caution. If the dismissal is indicative of how the committee will handle other investigations, then there are grounds to be very worried indeed.

A second concern is the committee’s conclusion that Graves had not violated any rules because there is no appearance standard for selecting witnesses for a hearing. This conclusion is deeply troubling and just plain wrong, turning a minor matter into a major problem. The ethics committee has in the past used the appearance standard in various instances to find violations, and the appearance standard is an important element of ethics enforcement. House leadership should quickly correct this misinterpretation and incorrect application.

The third issue raised by the Graves matter is that the committee went out of its way to attack the OCE in its report. This comes on the heels of a group of members assailing the OCE just months into its existence. One of those critics is, unfortunately, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.). Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were so upset about the OCE’s investigation of the Caribbean trip by five caucus members that they held a meeting with OCE board members and staff to voice their complaints.

Such complaints are unsurprising given the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil posture of the committee since the mid-1990s. When combined with the latest ethics committee attacks, including more than a dozen pages in the Graves report, the assaults have graduated beyond griping, and constitute an unjustified threat to the OCE’s future.

With these attacks against the OCE, the Democrats run the risk of forfeiting the high ground they won in making ethics a key component of their effort to regain control of the House. Then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) promises to clean up the House helped bring her party to power, led to the passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act and the creation of the OCE. This quasi-independent body, made up primarily of former members and staffers, was billed as an effort to restore public faith in the congressional ethics process.

Prior to the creation of OCE, the House ethics process had reached an all-time low. In a previous Congress, the committee went months without a staff director because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t reach agreement. The entire Jack Abramoff scandal erupted and passed into history without the House ethics committee ever taking any action. Despite reports of widespread questionable activities by members and staff, only those who were suspected of criminal behavior were investigated and only by the Justice Department. Meaningful, effective self-policing by Congress was non-existent.

While it took far too long for the OCE to get up and running, it is outperforming expectations and deserves credit for helping ensure that the ethics committee appears to be taking its responsibilities more seriously than it has in years.

The attacks against the OCE may be a prelude to an effort in the next Congress to shut down the OCE. It is essential that Speaker Pelosi tamp down these attacks and head off ill-advised maneuvers against the OCE or its staff. The OCE should be allowed to do its job. Like it or not, ethics issues have resonance and political power with the American people. The party that is seen as reneging on its promises and weakening ethics enforcement is likely to suffer the consequences, as it should.

 

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