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Recent press reports indicate that the House leadership is considering a rules change that would diminish the scope and authority of the Office of Congressional Ethics. This is an apparent response to the OCEs decision to forward information gathered during its investigation of the PMA Group to the Justice Department, bypassing the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in the process. The narrative seems to be that this is just another example of the OCE succumbing to mission creep or growing beyond its intended purpose.
In the interest of full disclosure, I voted against the creation of the OCE in 2007. I felt at the time that the House should be able to establish appropriate standards and police its behavior through the ethics committee. I still believe that we should be able to do so. But this controversy over the OCE has effectively shown that when it comes to removing the cloud that hangs over this body relating to earmarks and campaign contributions, this body is unwilling, through the ethics committee, to take the necessary action to uphold the dignity of the institution.
After an investigation lasting more than a year, during which some 200,000 pages of documentation were accumulated, the OCE concluded that, There is evidence that some of the commercial entities seeking earmarks from Members of Congress believe that a political donation to the Member has an impact on the Members decision to author an earmark for that donor. This information was forwarded to the ethics committee, which agreed with the OCEs conclusion. The ethics committee summarized the OCEs findings as follows: There is a widespread perception among corporations and lobbyists that campaign contributions provided enhanced access to Members or a greater chance of obtaining earmarks.
But then, quite inexplicably, ethics dropped the matter, stating that to address the problem is not within the jurisdiction of the Committee. Let me state that again. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct says that it lacks the authority to establish a standard that will address what it concludes is a widespread perception of a link between earmarks and campaign contributions.
This defies reason. At the beginning of the 110th Congress, the House adopted rules requiring Members of Congress to certify that they have no financial interest in an earmark being sponsored. Financial interest has been defined by the ethics committee to include a direct or foreseeable effect on the pecuniary interest for the Member or his/her spouse. The relevant section of the House Ethics Manual then states that campaign contributions do not necessarily constitute financial interest.
How can the ethics committee lack the authority to set standards or interpret rules? This is particularly confusing when one considers that the committee can address the issue by simply amending the interpretation of financial interest it has promulgated in the House Ethics Manual.