Post-Watergate ethics panel needs urgent makeover
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It’s time to state the obvious: President Trump is revealing, in near real-time, weaknesses in ethical enforcement within the federal government.

The Office of Government Ethics (OGE), the agency responsible for administering and enforcing federal ethics laws and standards, is poorly equipped and vastly outgunned in addressing today’s conflict between public service and private gain. Washington certainly wasn’t ready for the ethical challenges presented by the Trump administration and the fundamental flaws within the agency — exacerbated by bureaucratic leaders — are now a clear threat to our democracy.

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In the past, long-standing tradition and public opinion were enough to pressure public officials to comply with ethical best-practices. Today, the president wears his “Washington outsider” title as a badge that allows him to ignore some of the oldest customs intended to protect America’s democratic institutions from abuse.

 

That is why it is critical for Congress to modernize OGE, an agency that has rarely been more than a footnote in presidential history. Established by Congress in 1978 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, its mission is to provide oversight of the executive branch and prevent and resolve conflicts of interest. Today, its responsibilities have grown to encompass overseeing more than 130 executive agencies, the White House and 2.7 million civilian employees.

While front-page headlines over the past six months give the appearance that OGE is flexing its muscle, the truth is the agency has long been a backwater with limited tools to promote ethical behavior in the executive branch. The problems are myriad because the ethics office was hamstrung by design from day one: It cannot launch investigations or impose sanctions, for example, and rules protecting its director from being fired are missing entirely. Recall that the current director and Obama appointee, Walter Shaub, has come under pressure by outside groups and Washington politicians for simply doing his job.

In light of these deficiencies within the agency, it is time for Congress to have the political will to make sure OGE has the power to effectively, and independently, oversee public officials. There are a number of statutory reforms that would better equip the agency to pursue its mission and also ensure its independence.

First, Congress must specify in legislation that the OGE’s director may only be terminated for cause, as was recommended in 1983. Currently, the Ethics in Government Act (EIGA) states that the director serves a five-year term, but is silent on when and how he or she may be removed.

Second, OGE should serve as a central clearinghouse for all ethics actions taken by designated agency ethics offices. This would place decisions from various agencies side-by-side to promote transparency and ensure consistency of decisions throughout the government.

Third, OGE should have the authority to impose specific standards for ethics training for all high-level executive branch officials within a certain amount of time after joining an administration. As some will recall, President Trump’s transition team canceled its plan for ethics training — and the results have been devastating.

Fourth, Congress should empower OGE to investigate allegations of ethics violations by high-ranking employees. There is a real concern about political pressure affecting any investigation that may be conducted into high-ranking employees, resulting in a sort of double-standard where rank-and-file executive branch employees feel the lash of non-compliance while the “big dogs” escaped unscathed.

Fifth, lawmakers should clarify that the director of OGE has the authority to conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses, compel production of documents, and issue civil penalties for violations by high-ranking officials.

For decades, the Office of Government Ethics has existed as a mouse of an agency, focused on the bureaucratic work of properly filled out forms and training employees. Investigations — real investigations — of ethical violations were and are rare.

The nation can ill afford a toothless watchdog of our nation’s ethical standards — standards that are the bedrock of the public’s faith in our government. Congressional action to address the long-established statutory weaknesses and failures of the OGE is long overdue. The American people deserve better.

Meredith McGehee is the chief of policy, programs and strategy for Issue One, a group dedicated to reducing money in politics. She was previously policy director at the Campaign Legal Center and has been named 10 times, including 2016, by The Hill as one of the top nonprofit/grassroots lobbyists in Washington.


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