By Lisa Gilbert
Today’s events have put a spotlight on congressional ethics.
The same day that the U.S. House of Representatives voted to censure one if its most senior members over ethics violations, it also heard entreaties from 10 reform groups, including Public Citizen, to maintain an important ethics safeguard in the House: the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).
The events highlight a broader drama unfolding in Congress. Despite some shortcomings, the OCE is vastly improving compliance to the ethics rules in Congress – and for that reason the OCE is coming under attack. The agency is in danger of being critically weakened, or even eliminated, when the new Republican majority rewrites the House ethics rules on Jan. 5.
A new Public Citizen analysis (pdf) shows a marked increase in activity by the House ethics committee in just the past two years. This activity stems in large part from the good work of the OCE, and that is why some in Congress want to shut it down.
The OCE undertook 69 preliminary reviews in 2009 and 2010, while the House ethics committee doled out 11 disciplinary actions in that same time, more than the total disciplinary actions taken by the committee in the previous decade. This does not mean there were more ethics violations in the past two years – just that there was more activity by the ethics committee. While the ethics committee slumbered in the previous decade, the Department of Justice filled the void with about 20 criminal prosecutions of scandals related to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Now that the OCE is prompting the ethics committee to do its job, members and staff are on notice that the ethics rules will be enforced before they cross the line into criminal behavior.
We urge the incoming leadership to make abundantly clear that they will preserve the OCE in its current form in the 112th Congress – and strengthen the agency by granting it authority to subpoena witnesses and evidence. The public deserves no less.
Although the case of Rep. Charles Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) ethics violations predates the OCE, the office’s work likely contributed to his prosecution by increasing awareness of and sensitivity to ethics abuses. The House vote to censure Rangel – the chamber’s most stringent form of punishment with the exception of expulsion – is the appropriate reaction to his ethics violations.
Lisa Gilbert is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.