Reforms can stop members of Congress from using their public office for private gain
© Greg Nash

Americans deserve a government and public servants who work through their disagreements to find solutions that are in the public’s best interest. One reason why Washington seems broken is because too often the people we elect have lost their way by focusing on doing the bidding of wealthy special interests or using their public office for private gain.

Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsWe can't afford to let local news die House bill would ban stock trading by members of Congress Former Rep. Chris Collins sentenced to 2 years in prison for insider trading MORE’ (R-N.Y.) decision not to seek re-election after being indicted on allegations of insider trading is the latest example of politicians putting their own private interests, or those of big money donors, ahead of our common good. While there has always been a problem with ethics and accountability in Congress, President TrumpDonald John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police MORE and Congressman Collins have exacerbated the problem.

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Instead of “draining the swamp,” President Trump is bullish on his family’s ability to profit from his presidency, which is unlike every president before him. His Cabinet is a billionaire’s club comprised of people like Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossOn The Money: US tops 100,000 coronavirus deaths with no end in sight | How lawmaker ties helped shape Fed chairman's COVID-19 response | Tenants fear mass evictions Ross: Trump considering 'whole menu' of options against China on Hong Kong law OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Government predicts busy hurricane season | Report: BLM says oil and gas operators should set their own royalty rates for public lands drilling | Michigan flooding risks damage to hazardous waste sites: report MORE, who Forbes called, “one of the biggest grifter’s in U.S. history,” or the former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump official violated ethics rules in seeking EPA job for relative, watchdog finds Pelosi hammers Pompeo, Trump: 'Scandalous' to dismiss IGs EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement MORE who spent much of his tenure embroiled in scandal.

Trump and his administration’s hostility to ethics standards and transparency has emboldened members of Congress to play by their own rules, as Rep. Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign, has demonstrated. Luckily for the American people, there are practical solutions that Congress could enact to create a more ethical and accountable government.

The first thing Congress needs to do is make the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) a permanent body. Since its creation in 2008, the OCE has been authorized only by the rulebook of the U.S. House of Representatives. There have been numerous attempts over the last decade to weaken or entirely get rid of the OCE, although those efforts are often met with bipartisan pushback. Congress must pass legislation to make the OCE permanent.

Congress should also strengthen the power of the OCE by giving it subpoena power to compel testimony from witnesses. Protecting and expanding the independence and integrity of the OCE is crucial. After all, it was the OCE that first investigated Rep. Collins and raised concerns about his behavior.

In the U.S. Senate, there is no independent ethical investigative body like the OCE. It should be a priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRosenstein steps back into GOP crosshairs Biden to deliver remarks in Philadelphia Tuesday on nationwide protests Senate Republicans urge Trump to tone down rhetoric on protests MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerPelosi, Schumer say treatment of protesters outside White House 'dishonors every value that faith teaches us' Is the 'endless frontier' at an end? Judd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not MORE (D-N.Y.) to pass legislation to create a similar OCE-type body in the Senate.

Transparency is also key in ensuring accountability in our government. While the House Ethics Committee continues to conduct much of its business behind closed doors, suspicions spread on whether the committee is truly doing its job or instead protecting individual members of Congress. Making more of the committee’s documents and proceedings public is needed. Congress should also prioritize updating the disclosure rules in the STOCK Act, which were gutted by Wall Street lobbyists before the bill passed in 2012.

These types of reforms, some which are included in Rep. Tom O’Halleran’s (D-Ariz.) CLEAN Act, would strengthen ethics and accountability in Congress, but are just a start. We also must deal with the issue at hand in the Collins’ indictment: the ability of members of Congress to buy and sell stock and to sit on corporate boards.

The End Congressional Stock Market Abuse Act, introduced by the late Rep Louise SlaughterDorothy (Louise) Louise SlaughterHouse passes bill to explicitly ban insider trading Sotomayor, Angela Davis formally inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame Seven Republicans vote against naming post office after ex-Rep. Louise Slaughter MORE (D-N.Y.) would prohibit members of Congress from receiving a discounted purchase price in some private offerings of securities and stocks. Other good reform ideas that Congress could consider include prohibiting members of Congress from trading stock related to issues that committees they sit on have jurisdiction over and requiring members of Congress to disclose their tax filings. There is also a new bipartisan effort led by Reps. Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceHillicon Valley: Tech giants poised to weather coronavirus damage | Record Facebook-FTC deal approved | Bipartisan 5G bill introduced New York lawmakers move to combat security, disinformation threats to mail-in voting NY, NJ lawmakers call for more aid to help fight coronavirus MORE (D-N.Y.) and Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedA quiet, overlooked revolution in congressional power Bipartisan Senate group offers new help to state, local governments GOP Rep. Pete King to buck party, vote for Democrats' coronavirus relief bill MORE (R-N.Y.) to prohibit members of Congress from sitting on corporate boards, which is already part of U.S. Senate’s rules.

All of these reforms are common sense ideas. Everyday Americans play by the rules, and when they don’t, they have to face consequences. The same should be true for our elected officials in Congress. That’s why Common Cause launched a new campaign to get candidates for Congress on the record about many of these important ethics reforms, which can be found at democracy2018.org. Voters should demand their candidates tell them where they stand on creating an accountable government that is truly of, by, and for the people.

Karen Hobert Flynn is president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan grassroots democracy reform organization with more than 1.2 million members and activists across the country.