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But the very independence and seriousness of purpose of OCE has generated sizable opposition within Congress, starting with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, extending to the Congressional Black Caucus and to many Members who would prefer to keep ethics issues much closer to their own vests. Given the initial staunch opposition of John Boehner (Ohio), Eric Cantor (Va.) and nearly every incoming honcho on the GOP side, it was not surprising their initial comments suggested the OCE would be erased in January, left out entirely from the rules package that frames every new Congress.
The tea party activists’ involvement has already changed that dynamic, causing Boehner and Cantor to back off their comments about OCE. These tea partyers, and presumably their Representatives in Congress, don’t want the old-boy network that long “managed” ethics issues — with both sides conspiring to avoid serious ethics investigations that would roil the waters. They want an honest, open Congress.
So here is an opportunity for a new coalition between freshman Republicans and veteran Democrats who helped create OCE and who believe in its continuation (and maybe even making it more credible and stronger). But let’s not stop with ethics reform in the House. How about a new effort for ethics reform in the Senate, where the same aversion to serious ethics enforcement has long been a characteristic?
Then there is broader Congressional reform. There is no reason for any partisan or ideological divide on creating a new, more predictable and more effective schedule, based on a succession of five-day workweeks in Congress followed by a full week to go back to the district or state. Rep. Rob Bishop (R), a former Speaker of the Utah House, has a set of common-sense reforms, including on scheduling and transparency, that could and should get bipartisan support.
I also do not see any reason why new Republican Senators such as Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah), along with newly elected veteran Washington hands such as Sens.-elect Rob Portman (Ohio), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Dan Coats (Ind.), would not join a bipartisan effort to make the Senate work better without taking a meat ax to the existing rules. They could remove impairments such as the filibuster on the motion to proceed and the obsolete provision that can bring committee work to a halt when the Senate is in session, and improve the process for confirming executive appointees. Of course, the same coalition could also advance the No. 1 proposal to advance transparency, the DISCLOSE Act.
I doubt Republican leaders in the House or Senate are eager to see a bipartisan coalition developing on reform issues they tend to oppose. But that could make it even better, allowing many of the new Members to strike a blow for a new, more honest and more open Washington, even in the face of pressure from their leaders.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.