Congress Tries to Kill Independent Ethics Watchdog, Americans Fight Back

In this December 2012 photo, fog obscures the Capitol dome in Washington.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, is an independent, bipartisan ethics panel and fact-finding agency that is crucial to protecting the public’s interest in honest services and fair representation from government officials. It has limited yet critical investigative authority and an essential role in publicizing and deterring corruption. The office has been instrumental in successful prosecutions of lawmakers who violated ethics laws instead of working for Americans.

It is truly unfortunate that House Republicans attempted to start their period of unified control of the federal government by dramatically weakening one of the most effective anti-corruption and accountability tools that exists in Washington. Monday night in a secret vote during a closed party meeting, the Republican majority voted 119-74 to change the proposed rules for the next Congress and eviscerate the independent congressional ethics watchdog. Public outrage ensued, and after members’ offices were flooded with calls in a few short hours, the majority dropped its attack on the OCE—for now.

This does not bode well for the chances that the Republican majority will take any real steps to “drain the swamp” and wrest government from wealthy special interests, despite the campaign rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump. Clearly, Americans have been sold a bill of goods that Republicans are interested in real reform rather than in consolidating power. Removing Congress’ one independent ethics watchdog would lay the groundwork for an explosion of political favoritism for special interests that can pay for access and influence—the opposite of draining the swamp.

After years of inaction by the House Ethics Committee—which was known to sweep corruption under the rug and considered “worthless for anything other than a whitewash”—the establishment of the OCE brought a period of increased accountability. The OCE was formed in 2008 at the recommendation of a bipartisan congressional taskforce on ethics enforcement after major corruption scandals in which three members of Congress went to jail: Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) spent seven years in prison on bribery and other charges; former Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), charged in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, served 30 months in jail after pleading guilty to corruption; and former Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Historically, the House Ethics Committee failed to adequately investigate, punish, and deter members’ misconduct. In nearly a decade prior to the wide-ranging Abramoff lobbying corruption scandal, the House Ethics Committee had only taken five disciplinary actions, a number that was matched in the three years of the Abramoff scandal. A 2014 study of the OCE showed that in the five years after it commenced working, from 2009 to 2014, the House Ethics Committee took 20 disciplinary actions. The OCE facilitated the effectiveness of the House Ethics Committee by striking a balance and using appropriate discretion in its work: 64 percent of complaints received have been dismissed or closed, and 49 reviews resulted in referrals to the House Ethics Committee, 46 of which are publicly available. One of the most important parts of the OCE process is that much of its work is publicly available. Its core mission is to “assist the U.S. House in upholding high ethical standards with an eye toward increasing transparency and providing information to the public.”

There are many examples of the OCE’s important work:

  • In 2010, the OCE looked into allegations that then-Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) was using his official position to assist a company he owned in Georgia. He resigned before the House Ethics Committee took action, but the OCE released findings that there was substantial reason to believe that Deal had violated ethics laws. Deal was running for governor of Georgia at the time the report was released. His unethical conduct would have remained hidden from voters had the OCE not made its findings public.
  • Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) resigned in 2015 after the OCE found that he engaged in campaign finance violations. He was indicted in November 2016 on charges of misusing public and campaign funds for his own personal benefit, causing a loss of more than $100,000. He has denied the allegations.
  • In 2009, the OCE reviewed allegations that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) had tried to make payments to obtain President Barack Obama’s former seat representing Illinois in the U.S. Senate. The OCE also found that staff resources were used in the effort to secure the Senate seat, potentially violating federal law. The OCE recommended further review, and in 2011, the House Committee on Ethics stated it would review the allegations and published the OCE report. Rep. Jackson resigned from Congress in 2012 and, in 2013, pled guilty to wire and mail fraud and misusing $750,000 in campaign funds on private expenses. He was sentenced to federal prison for 2.5 years.
  • In 2015, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) announced he would not seek re-election amid an investigation of his wife’s lobbying access. She was a registered lobbyist for the Humane Society Legislative Fund. The OCE investigated whether his wife lobbied Rep. Whitfield or his staff and concluded that she was granted “special favors or privileges.” In 2014, the OCE recommended that the House Committee on Ethics review the allegations; later that year, the committee agreed to continue gathering information, released the OCE report, and announced a further review. In 2016, the committee found that Rep. Whitfield violated the House rules and standard of conduct and reproved him.
  • The OCE investigated Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) in 2013 for improper use of campaign funds. The OCE recommended that the House Committee on Ethics further review the abuse of funds from her leadership PAC and use of campaign funds and improper contributions to promote her book. The OCE recommended the committee dismiss the charge that Rep. Bachmann filed false reports of campaign spending. The Committee on Ethics stated it would continue gathering information and pursuing allegations and published the OCE report. In a separate action related to her 2011 presidential campaign in Iowa, one of her staff members ultimately pled guilty to campaign finance violations.

In what was described as “the most extensive investigation undertaken by the ethics office,” the OCE investigated a 2013 trip to Azerbaijan in which the Azerbaijan state oil company sponsored travel for 10 members of Congress in violation of federal law. This occurred as the company was seeking exemptions from sanctions on Iran for its $28 billion pipeline. In this instance, investigators found no evidence that the lawmakers knew that a foreign government was funding the conference. Still, now is not the time to lower America’s guard against improper foreign influence and conflicts of interest.

In addition to these efforts, having a cop on the beat for Congress helps deter unethical behavior and violations that could result in inefficient use of taxpayer money and other fraud and abuse. It is worth reflecting that political scandal, government corruption, and a loss of fair representation incur real costs borne by real people.

It was particularly ugly that this attack on ethics enforcement and transparency came in a secret meeting on a holiday the night before the floor vote on the package that would have made stripping ethics the first act of the new Republican Congress. But there is every reason to believe that the majority will be back to hobble the OCE’s power to prevent and punish corruption in Congress later in the year. After all, many of those who sought to end the agency this week have found their own behavior scrutinized by the OCE. According to The New York Times, that included:

Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas, who had been investigated by the O.C.E. for sexual harassment. Representative Peter Roskam of Illinois, who came under O.C.E. scrutiny after he and his wife took a $24,000 trip to Taiwan, which appeared to have been paid for, improperly, by the Taiwanese government. Representative Sam Graves of Missouri, who was the ranking member of the House Committee on Small Business in 2009 when he invited expert testimony on the renewable fuels industry from a representative of a renewable fuels business in which his wife had a financial stake, a potential conflict of interest. And Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico, who last year tried to eliminate the O.C.E.’s entire budget after it investigated one of his staff members. None of these lawmakers or staff members were sanctioned, by the way—they just didn’t like the scrutiny.

A little noticed but potentially very problematic rules change did make it through. The Republicans have, for the first time, given all committees subpoena power to call in private citizens to sit for staff depositions without having a member of Congress present. So while a majority of House Republicans attempted to kill the independent office that investigates members of Congress, they also substantially increased their own power to investigate and prosecute private American citizens. Parallels with the Watergate and McCarthy eras are hard to avoid.

Public outcry ultimately caused House Republicans to pull back from this ethics nosedive. However, this action is a terrible sign that points to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) abandonment of any commitment to take seriously the anti-corruption and pro-ethics promises made by President-elect Trump’s campaign. Importantly, this move by House majority leaders begs the question: What does this mean for accountability and oversight in Washington, D.C., on the eve of President-elect Trump’s inauguration?

Liz Kennedy is the Director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress.