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 CollinsMichael Caputo eyes congressional bid House ethics panel renews probes into three GOP lawmakers The Hill's Morning Report - Barr stiff-arms House following Senate grilling 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 TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist 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 RossHillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei Judge signs order permanently blocking citizenship question from 2020 census Lawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei MORE, who Forbes called, “one of the biggest grifter’s in U.S. history,” or the former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Democrats, scientists slam Trump administration actions on scientific boards Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment White House, Congress inch toward debt, budget deal Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerLawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US Colombian official urges more help for Venezuelan migrants 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 SlaughterSeven Republicans vote against naming post office after ex-Rep. Louise Slaughter Breaking through the boys club Sotomayor, Jane Fonda inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame 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 RiceDemocrat offers measure to prevent lawmakers from sleeping in their offices Hillicon Valley: Pelosi blasts Facebook for not taking down doctored video | Democrats push election security after Mueller warning | Critics dismiss FCC report on broadband access | Uber to ban passengers with low ratings Lawmakers raise security concerns about China building NYC subway cars MORE (D-N.Y.) and Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedCrucial for Congress to fund life-saving diabetes research House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran 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.