Guest Opinion: Wrong move to try to gut watchdog
You know it’s going to be a long war when the first shot you fire hits you in the foot.
That’s what happened to House Republicans this week when they decided in a private conference on Monday night, by a vote of 119-74, to strip the Office of Congressional Ethics of its independence and put it under the control of members of Congress through the House Ethics Committee.
The OCE was created in 2008 after a series of high-profile scandals that ended with members of Congress locked up. In 2006, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio was sentenced to 30 months in prison on charges related to influence peddling, and Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California was sentenced to eight years after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes, including yachts, antiques and a Rolls-Royce.
Fighting the perception that the House Ethics Committee had failed to do its job, Congress established the independent Office of Congressional Ethics and gave it the power to refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors and issue public reports, even in cases where the House Ethics Committee decided to take no action.
But on Monday night, some House Republicans objected to what they felt was a lack of due process for members who found themselves in the OCE’s crosshairs. They proposed new rules that would prevent the OCE from having a spokesman on staff, or investigating anonymous tips, or making referrals to criminal prosecutors without the express consent of the House Ethics Committee.
To their credit, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy opposed the move to put the OCE under the control of the House Ethics Committee, and so did President-elect Donald Trump, who used his Twitter account to make a very visible public statement Tuesday morning. “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority,” Trump wrote.
Not long after that statement, GOP leaders called an emergency meeting where House Republicans voted unanimously to reverse the Monday night vote.
Ethics rules, even independently enforced, are no guarantee that public officials will act ethically. In some ways written rules may even enable unethical conduct by delineating the boundaries of enforcement. Truly ethical conduct should not include going right up to the line and then saying, “I stayed within the rules.”
What’s needed is a simple understanding and commitment that public office and access to government power may not be used for private gain.
Trump may have to keep his Twitter account out of its holster to make sure no one connected with his administration attempts to profit personally from government service. And GOP leaders will have to keep a tight rein on any lawmakers who have shown an inclination to be something less than scrupulous.
Otherwise it won’t take long for the credibility of public officials to drop below the point where the public will believe them or support the policies they say will solve the nation’s problems.
That would put us right back where we started, engulfed in an angry, nationwide revolt against an establishment that just doesn’t get it.