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2009: A Busy Year in Congressional Ethics Comes to a Close

In January 2007, when this column first appeared in Roll Call, the subject of Congressional ethics had never been hotter. It was one of the main issues Democrats had used to sweep into power, gaining 31 seats in the House and six in the Senate. Exit polls in those elections suggested that “corruption” was more important to voters than terrorism, the economy or even Iraq.

What followed was a flurry of legislative activity surrounding ethics, the most significant of which was the September 2007 passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. Amid all the focus on ethics, Roll Call introduced this column to answer both real and hypothetical “questions of ethics.”

Yet despite all of the attention on ethics in 2007, skeptics wondered whether it would last. And they had good reason to ask. Many times in the past, it had seemed, when corruption scandals had thrust government ethics into the limelight, the attention soon faded without much impact.

Three years later, a look back at 2009’s leading ethics stories reveals that the issue is still going strong. In fact, whereas 2007 was the Year of Congressional Ethics, ethics may have made even greater news in 2009.

The year started fast. Immediately upon taking office, President Barack Obama put lobbyists on notice that they would be a prominent target of his administration’s ethics policy. On his first day in office, Obama signed an order restricting the lobbying by personnel who leave his administration as well as the work of former lobbyists seeking to enter his administration. The order also included a tougher ban on gifts to executive branch employees. Over the remainder of the year, more restrictions on lobbying would come, including strict guidelines on communications with executive branch employees regarding the Troubled Asset Relief Program and stimulus funding. Many restrictions applied only to registered lobbyists. Perhaps not surprisingly, 2009 saw the biggest spike ever in lobbyist deregistrations.

January also saw the first-ever meeting of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which was created to review allegations of misconduct against House Members and staffers to determine whether the allegations merit referral matters to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The OCE’s first year of existence was not without controversy, including public disagreements with the House ethics committee regarding OCE’s role and procedures. How those disagreements ultimately play out remains to be seen.

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