In 2008, following a wave of Congressional corruption cases and bad behavior, the House of Representatives created the independent Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate potential ethical violations by lawmakers and recommend further action to the Ethics Committee.
One critical feature of the new office is that its reports are made public after the Ethics Committee reviews them and decides whether to take action.
This unprecedented transparency on the House ethics process has allowed the public to see for the first time the cases the Ethics Committee chooses to forgo investigating.
In one of its first official acts this Congress, the Ethics Committee dismissed cases involving three Members accused of creating the appearance of a conflict of interest by holding fundraising events with financial industry executives and lobbyists in the days before major votes on the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation.
The OCE had assembled what it believed was meaningful evidence that the overlapping votes and financial industry fundraisers created the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if quid pro quo deals were not made to change votes as a result of the contributions. Investigators collected hundreds of documents, giving the public an inside look at how fundraising consultants wheedle contributions from industry players.
However, the Ethics Committee concluded that these cocktail party fundraisers were just routine events, saying, “The overall record demonstrated that there were no appearances of impropriety.”
In other words, these events were business as usual in Washington.
Whether or not you believe there was the appearance of a conflict in this case, one undisputed fact is that because of the creation of the OCE, the public now has a crystal-clear window to see for itself the way House Members function when policing themselves.
And, while we frown at the Ethics Committee’s tendency to let Members off the hook for Washington-style “business as usual,” we can only hope the increased transparency and scrutiny the OCE has brought to the process will lead to more reform of Congressional ethics rules and procedures.
Lisa Gilbert is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.