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Ethics Committee’s Shortcomings On Display

The only problem was the OCE was made quite weak, without any ability to issue or get issued subpoenas and with no ability to assist the Ethics Committee in moving forward on ethics cases when it passed a threshold to merit further investigation. Sadly, the one area in which Lofgren and Bonner were entirely united was in their disdain for the work of the OCE, and the committee and the office were at loggerheads for much of the 111th Congress.

I was deeply fearful that when the House Republicans moved into the majority this year, they would eliminate the OCE or weaken it so much that it would be utterly meaningless. Thanks to the efforts of many tea party activists around the country, incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not change its makeup or its role, despite his vote against creating the OCE in the first place.

Boehner, as I have written before, deserves credit for picking superb Members for the office, all of whom are still in place and continuing to work in a refreshingly constructive, nonpartisan and bipartisan way, with virtually all decisions to recommend further action against Members or to clear the slates done in a unanimous fashion.

Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who also made superb choices for the office — should now step in before this Waters embarrassment gets worse and hits a House that is already at a nadir in terms of public approval.

Two steps are necessary.

First, the Waters case needs an independent counsel to carry it forward in the committee: Someone of impeccable integrity, no personal ambition to use the  case as a personal springboard, an understanding of how Congress works and a clear ability to transcend partisan feelings. There aren’t many out there with those qualities, but they do exist.

Second, it is time to revisit the OCE and consider strengthening its role. One area is to allow the chairman and ranking member of the Ethics Committee — or the Speaker and Minority Leader — to issue subpoenas on the OCE’s behalf in rare cases where an important investigation is being impeded by a key witness’s refusal to testify or provide relevant information. A second is to consider a role for OCE members or staff to present evidence directly to Ethics Committee members when an investigation reaches the stage that the Waters case has.

Once again, the ethics process is broken and threatens the integrity of the House. Once again, it is time to act.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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