By: Fred Wertheimer
August 16, 2010
 
In the last few weeks, serious ethics charges brought against Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have refocused the national spotlight on ethics issues and the House of Representatives. The charges against Rangel and Waters – brought by bipartisan investigative subcommittees of the bipartisan House Ethics Committee – have resulted in a swirl of claims that call for a reality check.

Claim 1: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who promised to "drain the swamp" has failed to do anything about ethics issues in the House

Reality check: House Republicans will no doubt make an election issue about the ethics problems of Reps. Rangel and Waters. Each party does this when ethics questions arise about members of Congress from the other party.

But the question of whether individual members have failed to comply with ethics rules is different than the question of whether House Speaker Pelosi has done anything to address ethics issues in the House.

In 2007, shortly after the Democrats took control of Congress, Speaker Pelosi proposed and then led a successful effort to enact landmark new ethics rules for the House, the strongest since the post-Watergate ethics reforms. The House under Speaker Pelosi’s leadership also passed comprehensive lobbying disclosure reforms, the most important in more than a decade.

These sweeping reforms followed the failure of the House in the previous Congress to put in place any significant new reforms to address the Jack Abramoff scandals, the worst congressional ethics and lobbying scandal in decades.

In 2008, Speaker Pelosi also led a successful effort to strengthen enforcement of House ethics rules by establishing the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). The OCE was created to help ensure that potential ethics violations by members were reviewed and acted on by the House Ethics committee.

According to an Aug. 16 article in USA TODAY, "In the first six months of this year," the OCE "began 44 ethics investigations, up from 24 during the same period in 2009. The Office of Congressional Ethics has recommended that the House ethics committee take action against 13 lawmakers."

The OCE is an unprecedented ethics reform in Congress in that it provides non-members of Congress with a pivotal role in enforcing congressional ethics rules.

The need for major reforms in the House ethics enforcement process had been highlighted by the failure of the House Ethics committee in the previous Congress to open any investigations or take any actions regarding the Abramoff ethics and lobbying scandals.

Led by House Republican Leader John Boehner, almost all House Republicans in 2008 voted against creating the OCE. In a tough battle, the resolution to establish the independent OCE passed after barely survived a key procedural House vote by 207 to 206.

Claim 2: Specter of racism raised in ethics actions by the OCE and the House Ethics Committee

Reality check: Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that race has played any role in the ethics actions taken by the OCE or the House Ethics Committee.

CBC members attacked the OCE after it recommended that the House Ethics committee investigate a trip to the Caribbean taken by several CBC members and sponsored by Carib News Foundation. The travel expenses for the trip to the Caribbean by CBC members were paid for by corporations in violation of House ethics rules. The charges against all but one House member were dismissed by the Ethics committee after it turned out the Carib News Foundation had submitted false and misleading information to the committee prior to the trip.

Attacks on OCE were renewed following the charges brought against Reps. Rangel and Waters.

Recently, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), a member of the CBC, directly challenged the idea that race had been a factor in the Rangel and Waters investigations. Fattah said "I don’t believe that race has any part of this," according to The Hill (Aug. 4, 2010).

Representatives Rangel himself has rejected the role of race in his ethics investigation. According to The Hill, Rangel said, "’Do I believe the case is racially motivated? No."

Members of the CBC, furthermore, have played an active role in two of the Ethics Committee investigations at issue here, serving as members of the ethics subcommittees that investigated the Caribbean trip and Rangel cases. Additionally, a former CBC member is a member of the six-member OCE Board.

The circumstances here all affirm the view that race has not been a factor in the ethics investigations that have occurred in the House.

Claim 3: The Office of Congressional Ethics is a failure and should be abolished or handcuffed.

Reality check: The OCE was created in 2008 to address the fundamental problem that the House Ethics Committee had become a burial ground for potential ethics violations.

This problem culminated with the failure of the Ethics committee during 2005 and 2006 to conduct any investigations or take any actions regarding the infamous Jack Abramoff scandals in Congress.

The OCE was established to serve as an action-forcing mechanism to ensure that the Ethics committee considered and addressed serious ethics matters. The new, independent Office was given the authority to review potential ethics violations and to send findings of fact to the Ethics Committee with a recommendation as to whether the Committee should investigate or dismiss a matter. Responsibility for finding that ethics violations occurred and for recommending sanctions for violations remained with the Ethics committee.

The new OCE process clearly has re-invigorated the House ethics enforcement process. The record shows increased review of ethics allegations by the OCE and increased activity on ethics matters by the Ethics committee. And it is precisely because the OCE is doing the job envisioned for it that the office has faced attacks from members.

The OCE was viewed by House members from the start as a threat to the cozy status quo and to the moribund ethics enforcement process this had produced. As a result it didn’t take long for the office to come under internal attack.

The House Ethics Committee has engaged in a running "territorial" battle with OCE, attempting to discredit and undermine the Office and the role it is playing.

House Republican leaders have continued to challenge the existence of the OCE, which they had opposed in the first place. And a number of CBC members, led by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), have introduced a House resolution with proposed rules changes that for all practical purposes would put the OCE out of business.

A critical test of the institutional integrity of the House and whether House members are at all serious about ethics rules and standards will occur at the beginning of the next Congress, when efforts to abolish, handcuff or gut the OCE are expected to take place.

It is essential that the invaluable, independent OCE be preserved with its powers and authority intact.