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 CollinsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race House Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for Fighting AIDS domestically and globally means pushing more evidence-based services 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 TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ 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 RossTop Chinese official heading to Washington for trade talks The Hill's Morning Report - Trump faces mounting challenges to emergency declaration White House confirms new trade talks with China 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: Justices take up major case on water rules | Dems probe administration's dealings with Saudi Arabia | Greens sue EPA over toxic paint strippers Environmental groups sue EPA in bid to ban toxic paint strippers Overnight Energy: EPA to make formal decision on regulating drinking water contaminant | Utility to close coal plant despite Trump plea | Greens say climate is high on 2020 voters’ minds 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 McConnellDems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle Sanders: 'Not crazy' about nixing the Senate filibuster McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration 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 SlaughterNew York New Members 2019 Democrats see hypocrisy in GOP attacks on ‘liberal mob’ Poll: Dem leads by 24 points in race to replace 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 RiceDem lawmakers to open probe into ‘complex web of relationships’ between NRA, Russia McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader How Pelosi is punishing some critics while rewarding others MORE (D-N.Y.) and Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Dems hit GOP on pre-existing conditions at panel's first policy hearing A rare display of real political courage 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.