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Expect more bad behavior until Congress cleans up ethics rules

Expect more bad behavior until Congress cleans up ethics rules
© Greg Nash

The tales of unethical behavior and secret “hush money” deals have rightly spurred the U.S. House of Representatives to overhaul sexual harassment and discrimination oversight in the legislative branch. As an advocate who worked to enact the original Congressional Accountability Act, I knew the final legislation was less than perfect in 1995.

But it established an enormously important precedent: Congress should live by the laws it applies to others. It’s time to end the Capitol Hill culture that often only seeks to protect itself and has been hiding unethical behavior behind closed doors to the detriment of the public trust placed in our nation’s elected leaders.

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The work of fostering a culture of strong ethical standards in Congress has only just begun. Capitol Hill has a long and tortured history of placing politics above integrity and eviscerating its own ethics oversight processes. Unfortunately, even the legislation to reform the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 that just passed threatens the ethics review process.

The House drafters slipped a provision aimed at limiting the jurisdiction of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the body in the House that oversees allegations of misconduct concerning members of Congress, staff and officers in the chamber. This is the second time in the 115th Congress that lawmakers have attempted to weaken the OCE. The first was a move in January 2017 by House Republican leadership the evening before lawmakers were sworn into office.

It is important to remember the House and Senate have a constitutionally-mandated duty to punish and expel members of Congress when they act unethically. The most critical function of the House and Senate Ethics Committees is to adjudicate allegations of misconduct against fellow lawmakers and staff that come before them. Not surprising, these oversight bodies too often succumb to partisan politics or seek to simply provide convenient, public air cover for misconduct in Congress.

In fact, it was exactly this culture of misconduct and feckless enforcement that gave the impetus for the creation of an ethics body that conducted independent investigations. The OCE was established in 2008 following decades of scandals in Washington during which it became obvious that congressional leadership and the House Ethics Committee were failing to do their jobs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, ethics scandals led to the resignations of Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and presumptive Speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.). Then beginning in 1998, both political parties entered into an unstated but mutual “ethics truce” during which Republicans and Democrats did not file ethics complaints against the opposing party. They swept ethical misconduct under the rug, rather than address the root of misbehavior and corruption within the House of Representatives.

The truce fell apart in 2007 as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) became embroiled in ethics controversies and the scandals involving Enron and lobbyist Jack Abramoff also dominated the headlines. The OCE was established shortly after and began reviewing allegations of misconduct in 2009, recommending cases for continued review or dismissal to the House Ethics Committee.

Since the OCE’s inception, more than 21,000 private citizens have contacted it for information about standards of behavior in the House or to submit allegations of misconduct. The OCE has only initiated a preliminary review of 182 matters across that same timeframe and referred just 74 of those cases to the House Ethics Committee for continued review. In that same 10-year time, the House Ethics Committee has publicly “punished” members or staff in only a dozen cases.

It recommended the House censure Rep. Charlie RangelCharles (Charlie) Bernard RangelEsty seeks Ethics investigation into her own conduct Midterms may hinge on how voters view sexual misconduct Expect more bad behavior until Congress cleans up ethics rules MORE (D-N.Y.) for a host of ethics rules violations, reprimand Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) for compelling her congressional staff to work on her reelection campaign, among other unethical practices, and issued 10 letters of reproval or “slaps on the wrist” for cases ranging from conflicts of interest to unpaid back taxes. Five of those cases were originally referred by the OCE, and in another seven cases, the House Ethics Committee cleared individuals of wrongdoing but issued “updated guidance” to clarify House rules or strengthen standards of conduct.

Whether representatives like it or not, the OCE, while not perfect, has had markedly improved ethics oversight in the House. On the other hand, the public does not have to look far for examples of politics trumping oversight on the House Ethics Committee. Two recent cases referred by the OCE come to mind involving Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersNoisy democracy, or rude people behaving like children? Kavanaugh fight a GOP wake up call, but more is needed Kanye: Trump has to be 'the freshest, the flyest' MORE (D-Calif.) and an all-expense paid, privately-sponsored trip to Azerbaijan. In the first case, it ended after a needlessly delayed, three-year investigation rampant with leaks that eventually called for an outside special counsel that may have wasted more than $1 million in taxpayer funds.

The other case was replete with “hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of travel expenses, silk scarves, crystal tea sets” and more that included 10 House members and staff, and it was a trip that was originally approved by the House Ethics Committee in the first place. The original source of funds was only revealed through due diligence by the OCE, and then the House Ethics Committee violated House rules in an attempt to close the case following the OCE’s extensive investigation. The committee refused to publicly release the OCE’s report, violating the ethics process in order to bury its own mistake.

In other words, the OCE helps ensure that cases of misconduct that some members of Congress would rather remain behind closed doors are not thrown in a black hole, leaving the public ignorant of unethical behavior in the House of Representatives. While the OCE remains hamstrung by the lack of subpoena power, attempts to undermine it by both parties in Congress are a disservice to the public and to the House as an institution.

Until Congress cleans up ethics oversight in both chambers, establishes an equivalent body to the OCE in the Senate and furnishes it with subpoena power, elected leaders of both parties will continue to be painted with the same broad brush as the worst rulebreakers that find their way into breaking news headlines.

Meredith McGehee is executive director of Issue One. She worked on Capitol Hill and advocated for democracy reforms for more than 30 years. She also serves as strategic adviser to the Campaign Legal Center.