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.
I do not envy Bonner his job. Chairing the Ethics Committee is truly a thankless task. He and former Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) started out the 111th Congress with a commendable working relationship, even if their agreements tended to be around slamming the OCE for overreaching. But the bipartisan spirit got shredded toward the end of the Congress over the still-pending case of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), and Bonner will have to try to find a better relationship with the committee Democrats under new Chairwoman Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.). Let’s hope there are better relationships on the committee and with the OCE — and that the result is more admirable standards set for the House.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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