I believe this is a deeply unfortunate mindset. The standards of the House should be much higher. Imagine if a driver stayed within the speed limit, did not run a red light and did not make an illegal U-turn, but nearly hit several pedestrians, switched lanes in a fashion that caused another car to swerve into a telephone pole and honked loudly at 2 a.m. in a residential area, disturbing the sleep of the residents. Now imagine that the police shrugged at the reckless driving and said they won’t do anything unless there is a specific and direct violation of the traffic laws — that there are no penalties for reckless driving without the specific violation. If that were known universally as the driving standard, we would all be a lot less safe and a lot more nervous, and the standards of civil society would be degraded.
A standard that sets the bar higher than an inch off the ground does not mean violations of the spirit of rules, or dubious actions that simply don’t pass a smell test, need to be punished with draconian penalties. Simple and direct reprimands will do. But if lawmakers know they have nothing to fear, including embarrassment, unless they violate the letter of the rules, that there is no general standard of acceptable behavior and no problem with any appearance of conflict, then many will do things that reflect badly on Congress but stay just inside the rules. That will be especially true of fundraising, in an era when Members are under intense pressure to raise more and more and more money, for their own campaigns and for “the team,” and when the post-Citizens United jungle means every Member will try to stockpile money to guard against a stealth assault from anonymous groups. But it is also true for other areas of behavior.
The OCE, which has not only led the way with transparency but made every one of its decisions by consensus across the board, has taken a more realistic and admirable view. It has not made the office a favorite among House Members.
Indeed, Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner offered a few barbs for the OCE this week in an interview with the Mobile Press-Register. The Alabama Republican, who voted against the creation of the independent office, said that “the vast majority” of House Members privately want the OCE disbanded but that “political realities” kept the incoming majority from doing so — that “the far left and the far right” would have criticized Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) if he had moved to kill the office. That was a rather stunning characterization of the tea party members who offered strong support for the OCE after the election; actually, support for an independent office doing initial investigations of potential ethics violations goes well beyond the far left and the far right. Bonner, to his credit, pledged to try to work better with the office.