Editorial: Ethics Games

Instead of Following Rules, Members Prefer to Complain About the Umpire

Posted June 15, 2010 at 6:54pm

The Office of Congressional Ethics is just two years old, and already some House Members appear to be maneuvering to make it go away.

It is a sad development in the short life of an office that was created to help “drain the swamp” in Washington — and was making some headway in doing so despite enormous resistance from the very body that created it.

Though many lawmakers have grumbled privately about the OCE, the effort to undermine its ability to do its job flared openly this month.

Some background is in order here.

House lawmakers established the OCE in March 2008 as an appointed, nonpartisan, independent body to review potential rules violations. If the OCE concludes that an infraction likely occurred, it recommends an investigation to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics committee. Thus, the OCE cannot officially punish Members on its own; that power still resides squarely with the Members themselves.

But the OCE has been a thorn in the side of many Members nevertheless. By referring cases for further action, the OCE has turned up the heat on the ethics committee, whose Members have shown themselves to be as reluctant as ever to police their colleagues adequately.

The ethics committee has responded with attacks on the integrity of the OCE by, for example, accusing the office of hiding exculpatory evidence in a zeal to build cases against Members.

We’ve found such accusations suspect at best.

And now comes Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) with legislation that would grant the ethics committee new powers to judge OCE recommendations as “frivolous or unfounded” and require that all files in such cases be sealed.

The OCE derives much of its power simply from its ability to goad the ethics committee to do its job. Fudge’s bill essentially would allow the ethics committee to shove complaints of rules violations into a black hole, never to be seen again, much like the good ol’ days for Members who don’t like the funding for their junkets scrutinized or their business dealings picked apart.

While perhaps one could quibble over the significance of Fudge’s bill, the general implication of her effort is indisputably ominous. If Fudge’s proposal advances, it likely will be just the first of many efforts to whittle the OCE down to nothing.

It would be too difficult politically to kill an ethics watchdog in an election year, so it’s unlikely the OCE will disappear anytime soon.

But we won’t be surprised if the House adopts new rules for the 112th Congress that chip away at the office’s ability to do its job, perhaps incorporating Fudge’s language or something similar to it.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) initially responded favorably to Fudge’s proposal. “I’m always listening to what Members have to say,” Pelosi said when asked about Fudge’s bill, “and some of them have very good ideas.”

The Speaker quickly backtracked, insisting a short time later that there is no intent to water down the powers of the OCE.

We hope she means it.