Ethics PR fiasco

Shortly before the Memorial Day recess, 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) offered a new bill that would make significant changes to House ethics rules.

The legislation states that if the House ethics committee dismisses a recommendation from the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), there will be no public statement on that dismissal.

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There has been grumbling about the OCE for more than a year. If it makes a recommendation to the House ethics panel that a lawmaker should be investigated and the committee disagrees, the member’s name is made public.

So even though there is a split decision and the more powerful entity rejects the finding, the legislator’s name is tarnished because of the public reporting requirement. That’s what happened to Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) last fall.

It should be noted that OCE officials didn’t establish the House rules and are simply doing their jobs.

Still, CBC critics of the OCE have a good point — but they didn’t make it well.

Instead of having a press conference to express their concerns, they just quietly introduced their bill. Soon thereafter, the press ran stories of how the CBC wants to weaken ethics rules.

Government watchdog groups fired back, extolling the OCE.

The Washington Post editorial page wrote, “Undercutting OCE’s authority would be backsliding. The point of creating an outside watchdog was to prevent the ethics committee from sweeping things under the rug … ”

This is a classic example of it’s not necessarily what you do, it’s how you do it.

CBC members who co-sponsored Rep. Marcia Fudge’s (D-Ohio) bill, including some who went on a controversial trip to the Caribbean that was the focus of an ethics probe, should have seen how this measure was going to attract criticism.

Fudge unveiled her measure on May 28, but didn’t post a statement on her website until June 3 — well after the proposal had been lambasted. (She is quoted in a June 1 New York Times article on her resolution.)

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The public relations around this measure was weak, especially because the legislation is going nowhere as long as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is running the House.

OCE has served some good there. Its recommendations have led to probes being launched.

But it’s not fair for a member’s name to be dragged in the mud if the OCE believes an ethics investigation is warranted and the ethics committee does not.