OCE Maneuver Raises Doubts About Integrity

Posted June 15, 2010 at 7:02pm

Today’s column is about integrity — a topic that should always be of intense interest to Congress, but presumably even more so when approval ratings for the institution sink toward historic lows. Integrity is especially salient now as two issues have emerged on the radar screen of the House: ethics and campaign finance.

[IMGCAP(1)]On the ethics front, it is yet another in a wave of assaults on the Office of Congressional Ethics, this time from a score of members of the Congressional Black Caucus, led by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who have signed on to a resolution to gut the OCE, stripping it of much of the limited power it now has and pointedly silencing its ability to release most of the information it gathers.

To be fair, many Members of the House, Democrats and Republicans, have complained about the OCE in its brief existence. But this resolution is the most serious and determined effort to strip it of any meaningful role — and it is especially jarring since many of the signers of the letter have faced their own OCE inquiries. It’s even more jarring because Fudge’s chief of staff, Dawn Kelly Mobley, was rapped after the OCE’s investigation by the ethics committee for her role as an aide to the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) in the trip to the Caribbean that several lawmakers took that was improperly funded by corporate sponsors.

To a wide range of outside observers of Congressional ethics, the OCE has been a breath of fresh air, with its members showing both independence and integrity, and making every decision unanimously despite a wide range of partisan and ideological backgrounds and points of view. Whether clearing Members of wrongdoing, as the OCE did for several of the Carib trip travelers and some Members involved with the lobbying group PMA, or calling for further investigation by the House ethics committee of others, the OCE has had a level of credibility that no internal ethics committee can have, even when it is run well — the appearance of conflict is just too great. The OCE makes the House — in contrast to the Senate, which has cravenly refused to clean up its own ethics process by creating an independent entity — look better and, I believe, makes its Members act better.

But the Fudge resolution underscores how sensitive Members are to being judged or scrutinized, and how vulnerable the fledgling independent office is to being gutted or eliminated when the House adopts its rules next January. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was a strong supporter of the OCE and was instrumental in its creation in a tough battle where the California Democrat took a stand against a culture of corruption in Congress. But she was opposed strongly by Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and most House Republicans, along with a sizable number of Democrats.

I have noted before that Boehner, to his great credit, appointed strong members to the OCE, all of whom have contributed to the efficacy of its efforts. But if Republicans were to take the majority, I fear a serious effort to eliminate the office in January. At the same time, I fear that pressure from some House Democrats, including but not limited to the Black Caucus 20, will lead to a broader effort to weaken the office significantly. If either of those things happen, there will be a firestorm, and the House will have its reputation suffer even more.

Speaking of disclosure, and of integrity, in the face of the Supreme Court’s continuing efforts to intervene recklessly in the integrity of our laws on campaign finance, the House will soon take up the bill by Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) to provide more robust disclosure as a modest corrective to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. That the court is not resting on its dubious laurels with that decision was underscored by another hyper-activist move; in the middle of an election season, with many candidates having structured their campaigns based on existing Arizona public financing laws for state elections, the Supreme Court stopped the law in its tracks to prevent candidates from receiving matching funds where their opponents spend a large amount of personal wealth in their campaigns. It is hard to imagine a more pointed example of judicial activism run rampant than this disruptive mid-campaign stay — except for Citizens United itself.

The Van Hollen remedy for that decision, which allows unlimited corporate money to flow into independent campaign efforts, was to require significantly enhanced disclosure for the corporate money flowing in to run ads clearly designed to elect or defeat candidates — to at least let voters know where the funding for the attacks is coming from. On the face of it, the DISCLOSE Act should have broad Republican sponsorship; after all, disclosure is the backbone of conservative philosophy on campaign finance. Here is what Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) said during the debate over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in 2002: “What we ought to have is disclosure. … I think groups should have the right to run those ads, but they ought to be disclosed and they ought to be accurate.”

In 2000, McConnell asked, “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?” Here is John Boehner on “Meet the Press” in 2007: “I think what we ought to do is we ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Stunningly, the disinfectant of sunlight for corporate money injected into campaigns is suddenly anathema to the two leaders, and almost all of their House and Senate Members. So much for disclosure, and for integrity in our political process.

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