The GOP's Ethics Disaster

The gutting of the Office of Congressional Ethics is chilling evidence that we are headed for a new age of official embrace, or at least acceptance of unethical and illegal behavior.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

I have rarely been more angry or dismayed at the conduct of Congress than I was Monday night with the unconscionable, deplorable, underhanded move by Representative Bob Goodlatte to eviscerate and undermine the Office of Congressional Ethics. When House Speaker Paul Ryan and his counterpart Nancy Pelosi indicated weeks ago that they would continue OCE, the reform community—left and right—breathed a sigh of relief. Ryan, like his predecessor John Boehner, had seen the value to the integrity of the House of the office, which has been a stalwart of bipartisan and nonpartisan comity and independence. That makes this bait-and-switch action even more outrageous.

In March 2008, the House of Representatives did something striking, stirring, unprecedented, and edifying. It voted to create for the first time an independent office to deal with congressional ethics. I was both exultant and relieved at the time. I had seen up close for decades the difficulty inherent in a body tasked with policing itself. It is built into the Constitution that each house of Congress judge the conduct of its individual members. But the way in which this happened in practice, via a Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, had rarely worked either to make standards crystal clear to members and staff or to inspire public confidence in the body. For more than two decades, I had pushed to create an independent office, with involvement from former members who understand the nature of ethics in a political body, to be the first step in judging the conduct of members.

The problem was built into the system. Having members of a political and partisan body pass judgment on their colleagues has inherent conflicts. Fail to act when wrongdoing is apparent? The old-boy network is protecting its own, proving the corruption of politics.  Take tough action or bring controversial charges? That can reflect partisan motives or revenge, or the ambitions of members of the ethics panel taking out rivals for power. Clouds of suspicion hang over the process.

Those conflicts are true in the best of times; even when the members of the ethics panel act together in good faith, skepticism is inevitable. But the years leading up to 2008 were anything but the best of times. First came the ethics wars, led by Newt Gingrich in the years leading up to 1994, using the ethics process for partisan leverage, criminalizing policy differences. After Gingrich became speaker, the backlash hit him directly, in a tit for tat.

Under Speaker Dennis Hastert and his henchman Tom DeLay, it got worse. The nadir came in 2004 when an honest ethics panel, chaired by conservative Republican Joel Hefley of Colorado did its duty and recommended sanctions against DeLay for unethical conduct. Hastert responded by firing Hefley and removing two standup Republican members, Kenny Hulshof of Missouri and the late Steve LaTourette of Ohio.

When Democrats recaptured the House in 2006, the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, began a process to clean the House, choosing Massachusetts Democrat Michael Capuano to lead the effort via a bipartisan select panel.  Through a lengthy, arduous process, with deep opposition from nearly all Republicans and real reluctance on the part of many Democrats, Capuano, working closely with me and Tom Mann and a small group of other reformers, pieced together a balanced plan that respected and preserved the constitutional requirement that the House be the judge of its own members, kept intact the ethics committee, but created a way to build larger credibility that the ethics process would be honest and fair whatever the political currents or partisan pressures. It was weaker than we had hoped—it had no subpoena power, even indirectly via the ethics committee—but it was still a major breakthrough.

The OCE would never have made it over the finish line if it were not for Pelosi (and the respect Capuano had among his colleagues.) But while it passed on a near-party line vote, it would have been neutered quickly if it were not for the willingness of Republican Leader John Boehner to pick strong members for the first office.  It was the initial cast of members who kept OCE on course despite opposition from the members of the ethics committee and the wariness of a large group of lawmakers. David Skaggs and Porter Goss were the first leaders, and were exemplary, as were their colleagues, including other former members (Bill Frenzel and Ab Mikva, may they rest in peace, along with Yvonne Burke and Karan English, and two others who had deep experience around Congress, Jay Eagan and Allison Hayward.

The OCE members spanned the political spectrum, and had a thankless task, but responded just the way we had hoped—every decision they made was balanced, careful, and importantly, unanimous. The body took plenty of potshots, from aggrieved members of both parties, which have continued since its creation.  Reformers have feared at the beginning of each Congress since then that the leadership would try to remove it or weaken it. But Pelosi stood firm and Boehner, to his great credit, did so as well. Now this.

Rules packages get up or down votes, and are top priority for the majority leadership. They are not rejected by the majority party. The package is put together by the leadership; nothing gets included or excluded without the say-so of the speaker. Make no mistake about it: Despite public reports loudly proclaiming his opposition, it’s hard to believe this would have happened had Paul Ryan really tried to stop it. And do not believe Goodlatte’s risable assurance that this strengthens OCE. It has been muzzled and hamstrung, defenestrated and castrated. If Speaker Ryan really is opposed, he can demand a separate vote on the OCE provision when the whole House votes on its rules. If he does not, he owns it, plain and simple.

Given Ryan’s solidarity with President-elect Trump on Russian hacking—preceded by his deep-sixing any bipartisan statement during the campaign warning against foreign attempts to influence our elections—along with Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s indifference to any investigation of conflicts of interest or ethical problems with the president-elect and his cronies, this is chilling evidence that we are headed for a new age of official embrace or at least acceptance of unethical and illegal behavior. The core of America’s political system depends on real checks and balances, on a Congress that puts country ahead of party. The House leadership showed this week that party comes first.