Three lessons from the ethics office reversal
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Before the 115th session of Congress could be sworn in, the Republican House leadership arranged several closed-door meetings, voting to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Then, within 24 hours, they made a decision to completely reverse course. Examining this scenario play out could be telling of what is to come for Congress.

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Lesson 1: Timing is Everything.

If the goal of the House majority was to do something just because they could, they were suddenly reminded of President-elect Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp.”

There is something powerful about being elected to the House over and over again — perhaps it's a sense of invincibility. In a Twitter message suggesting that there were far more important issues to tackle — health care, tax reform, etc., — the president-elect deserves credit for opening some eyes and minds on the Hill.  

So, an early gift from the House Republicans to their Senate colleagues has been rescinded, but not without memories of a process and procedure that was simply wrong and ill-timed.

What is it about the OCE that made it a number one priority? Speaker Ryan and members of the Republican House leadership discouraged the initial vote. To their credit, they were eventually able to convince their colleagues to see the light.

Of course, a little Twitter help from the president-elect went a long way as well. Was this simply another example of the arrogance of power in Washington? I will leave that question for others to debate.

Sometimes when you are in the swamp it is hard to see life outside. For now, President-elect Trump is outside the swamp looking in. 

Lesson 2: Transparency Counts. 

No one will question that, at times, closed-door meetings may be needed in Congress. The effort to gut the OCE was not such an example. If ever there was an issue worthy of public debate, congressional ethics rules should take center stage.

Survey after survey shows a clear lack of public confidence in our elected officials. If there are genuine concerns about the procedures that take place in the OCE, debate the issues and allow for public input into necessary reform.

As a lawyer by training, I have concerns with the due process rights afforded to officials or anyone who is simply accused of wrongdoing by unnamed opponents.

Should there be a process in place that requires a minimum standard of evidence before allegations go public? It is inappropriate for unfounded allegations to be made public with little time and opportunity to defend oneself. 

Lesson 3: Trump is Watching. 

President-elect Trump has demonstrated in the weeks before his swearing in that he will be actively engaged in observing the legislative process. The American public expects the newly elected president to set out a legislative agenda and to work with Congress in its implementation.

The president-elect will apparently call things as he sees them. Isn’t that a refreshing way to get started on a very important mission?

 

Thomas B. Cooke is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Professor Cooke's current research focuses on federal tax law changes, ethics and professional responsibility and tax practice and procedure. 


 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.