To many Washington outsiders, congressional ethics is an oxymoron or fodder for late-night comedians, but watchdogs and longtime Washington observers point to one hopeful sign — an office they believe is helping members take ethics rules more seriously.
With a budget of just $1.5 million and a staff of nine, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent ethics board made up mostly of former members of Congress, has been quietly and consistently challenging the ethics status quo in the House of Representatives since its creation four years ago.
Some members have pushed back hard against the new ethics investigators, bitterly complaining about their tactics, and have even led unsuccessful efforts to slash the office's funding. But watchdogs argue the office has helped shine a bright light of transparency and accountability on the House ethics process, which was previously cloaked in secrecy, fraught with politics and had too often become a black hole where allegations against members went to die.
"One of the problems we've had with the ethics mess in the past is that for some years there was no enforcement at all of the rules and people just got careless," said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime political observer.
Mr. Ornstein advocated for the creation for the OCE and has been impressed by so far.
The OCE was the brainchild of then Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who pushed for an added layer of ethics oversight despite strong opposition from the Congressional Black Caucus and other senior members of her party after Democrats won the majority in 2006 in the aftermath of the Abramoff lobbying scandal.
But Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, also deserves credit for keeping the office around over the complaints of many in the GOP rank-and-file. When Republicans won back the majority in 2010, watchdogs feared Mr. Boehner would quietly dismantle the new office, but skeptical tea party activists warned GOP leaders against any attempt to weaken House ethics rules.
The office was created to serve as a grand jury of sorts, investigating allegations of wrongdoing and recommending further action or dismissal to the full ethics committee. It was not given subpoena power, and could not punish members or even make final conclusions as to whether lawmakers have broken House rules.
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.
Word recently leaked that the OCE is investigating Rep. Spencer Bachus, Alabama Republican and chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, over possible violations of insider-trading laws, and the full Ethics Committee has found the OCE's work difficult to ignore.
Early in its tenure, the new office investigated powerful Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, and five others over corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean that violated new travel rules, and that probe led to a string of financial mismanagement accusations that contributed to Mr. Rangel's loss of his Ways and Means Committee chairmanship.
The OCE's conflict-of-interest case against Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, led to three Ethics Committee counts of violating House rules and the federal ethics code.
Former Rep. Nathan Deal, a Republican from Georgia, resigned from the House in 2010 an hour before the OCE was scheduled to release its report charges that he improperly used his office to help a family auto-salvage business.
Even when the Ethics Committee has disregarded the office's recommendations, the scrutiny has had an impact.
For instance, after an OCE investigation into members' misuse of their travel per diems, the Ethics Committee cleared all the members involved — but House leaders still clarified the travel rules and started enforcing them.
"The irony is the OCE is working much better than any of us really thought it would," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center.
Mrs. McGehee gives much of the credit for the office's success to its leaders, former Rep. David Skaggs, a Democrat from Colorado, and former Rep. Porter Goss, a Republican from Florida who served as CIA director during the Bush administration, and their ability to put aside politics and work together.
She worries what will happen to the new office if either one of the two co-chairman should leave.
And Mrs. McGehee is quick to note that the Ethics Committee itself, which has the final say in whether a member is punished, is still opaque and secretive, slow-walks cases and can't figure out how to handle the case against Mrs. Waters after hiring a special counsel to investigate complaints that the panel mishandled the case against her.
Last month, all lawmakers who served on the panel during the Waters investigation were forced to recuse themselves from anything dealing with the Waters issue.
Despite the outside praise, the OCE stoked resentment among members of Congress in 2010 by launching a wide-ranging investigation of eight lawmakers' fundraisers held with the financial services sector in December 2009 within days of voting on the Wall Street reform bill.
At the time, OCE letters requesting information from several K Street firms quickly leaked to The Hill newspaper, which ran photos of all the members whose fundraising practices were under review.
The OCE ultimately only recommended that the Ethics Committee look into the fundraising of three of the members.
The Ethics Committee later cleared all involved, but House members complained that their names had been unfairly sullied.
Omar Ashmawy, a former military prosecutor who serves as the OCE's staff director and chief counsel and has worked at the office since its inception, said accuracy and confidentiality are the two principles the office takes most seriously. "Everything we do is done with those two principles in mind," he told The Washington Times.
"We are proud of the role that we've played in the House ethics process — in that we have performed exactly as the House expected us to — and the process has been working," he added.
As to lawmakers' outrage over the fundraising investigation, Mr. Ornstein said fundraising has become so all-consuming in Washington and deserves more ethics scrutiny.
"This is the one place where I don't mind firing a shot across members' bows once in a while," he said.
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