Office of Congressional Ethics could soon be silenced by those it investigates

Formed in 2008 as part of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s laughable promise to “drain the swamp” when she gained the gavel in 2006, the Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent group that investigates ethics complaints about Congress. Here’s the catch: the Congress it investigates must actually go about the business of nominating its appointees, reauthorizing and funding it or it will cease to exist. As one might expect, princesses are not overly fond of paying others to place peas under their mattresses, endangering their delicate hindquarters.

So, the Office of Congressional Ethics is in danger, with its creator Pelosi and Rep. John Boehner caught up in fiscal cliff talks and ranging between coy and obstinate on whether they’ll appoint new members of the board or reauthorize it in a timely manner.

“What is outrageous about it is that you see members of Congress on both sides saying they have zero tolerance for unethical conduct,” said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who now directs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

“But then behind closed doors they are quietly trying to kill the one body in Congress that is seriously going after unethical members.”…

Since its creation in 2008, the OCE has launched more than 100 investigations of lawmakers, raising serious questions about possible Congressional misdeeds.

In about a third of its investigations, the OCE found that House ethics, and sometimes federal laws, were likely violated. Those 37 cases were referred to the House Ethics Committee for further review.

I like the idea of having an independent body outside of the famously kid-gloved House Ethics Committee policing these guys, but I don’t want to pretend this is a panacea just because it’s a government-established entity with the word “Ethics” in the name. The fact is, the OCE can bring attention to scandals and refer them to the House Ethics Committee, where said scandals generally end the way House Ethics Committee investigations end— with no consequences. (Even when there are consequences, sometimes there are no electoral consequences— please see Rangel, Charlie.)

However, the OCE cannot take disciplinary action against the lawmakers it finds are likely to have violated ethics or federal law — so it has to refer its most serious investigations to the House Ethics Committee.

Out of the 37 cases it received from the OCE, the House Ethics Committee meted out formal punishment only on two occasions.

But the numbers suggest the OCE has made inquiries harder for the House Ethics Committee to ignore:

Despite these limitations, the office has conducted more investigations in three years than the full committee has in more than a decade, sending 29 public referrals to the Ethics Committee for future action.

Boehner, who made sure the office stayed intact after Republicans took back the House in 2010, has been somewhat more exact about when he might put forth names for the OCE than Pelosi, but both are mostly paying lip service. Left-leaning ethics groups have been concerned by the silence of the office’s creator as the deadline for reauthorization approaches. While both sides have members who are uncomfortable with OCE’s presence, Pelosi’s members have been most vocal about it, with Rep. Maxine Waters once making the accusation that its investigations are racially motivated. Two members of Pelosi’s caucus have moved to gut the organization legislatively in the wake of investigations into them:

A major sticking point is that half of the Democratic cases involve African American lawmakers.

“Within the rank and file of her caucus, there is a great deal of dissension about the value of OCE,” Public Citizen lobbyist Craig Holman told the Examiner. His group also signed the December 12 letter.

Some African American legislators charge OCE’s enforcement is racially “disproportionate.” OCE has investigated prominent African American legislators, including representatives Charles Rangel of New York, Maxine Waters of California and Jesse Jackson, Jr., of Illinois.

And eight African American lawmakers were cited for a Congressional Black Caucus junket to the Caribbean paid for by several corporations, including Citicorp.

OCE has gone after white lawmakers as well, including Rep. Pete Stark, former Rep. Nathan Deal, and Rep. Spencer Bachus, among others.

There’s still time to reauthorize, but the process is behind schedule:

The reauthorization should have really been started before this Congress goes on its winter break to allow for the time that it takes to select and appoint new board members. The new Congress is scheduled to be sworn on January 3.

I’ll leave you with this, from the Washington Post:

In the mid-2000s, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal helped pressure lawmakers to pass ethics revisions. The 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act imposed disclosure rules on earmarks, banned gifts from lobbyists and, for the first time, addressed the behavior of lobbyists related to lawmakers.

The changes restrict — but do not prohibit — relatives of members from lobbying Congress. In the House, the overhaul does prohibit people from lobbying their lawmaker spouses or their offices. In the Senate, the rules went further and prohibited spouses and all immediate family members from being paid to lobby anyone in the Senate.

But the laws left a lot of space for relatives.

For example, in the Senate, a son-in-law is free to lobby his in-laws. In the House, lawmakers may be lobbied by their children and parents.

“I was arguing there should be an absolute ban,” Holman said. Lawmakers had no interest. “The reform that was passed is so narrow, it is easily side-stepped.”

Most relatives — 48 of the 56 — began their careers as congressional lobbyists only after they had family members elected to the House or Senate, records show.

Ya don’t say.