Outside editorial: A needed House watchdog

Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

There aren't many policies established by outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that Republicans are likely to embrace, but tough scrutiny of members' ethics should be one of them. Incoming Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, must commit himself to continuing the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which serves as a kind of grand jury for the House Ethics Committee and publishes the results of its investigations.

The office, created in 2008, isn't perfect: Too many former members of Congress sit on its board (including former Rep. Yvonne B. Burke, who was criticized for skirting residency requirements when she served as an L.A. County supervisor). But OCE, as it is known, has made it harder for the Ethics Committee to engage in backdoor cover-ups and deal-making.

That was the case with Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., whom OCE investigated when she was accused of intervening improperly on behalf of a bank on whose board her husband served and in which he owned stock. Waters' trial was to start next week but has been postponed. OCE did not investigate the charges that led to the conviction of Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., by the Ethics Committee last week; Rangel himself asked the committee to examine the allegations, perhaps to forestall an OCE investigation that could have been even tougher.

Under Democratic control, there were efforts to rein in OCE, some based on the Congressional Black Caucus' complaint the office had targeted African-Americans. That argument, however, is spurious; the disproportionate number of black members who have been investigated could reflect the fact that black members are often veteran lawmakers from safe seats, traditionally the group most susceptible to ethical lapses.

Now supporters of OCE are alarmed by reports that Republicans guiding the transition are considering abolishing the office. Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., the ranking member of the Rules Committee, has denied that he asked OCE to justify its continued existence. But a spokesman for Boehner told The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, no decision has been made about whether the office will be continued in the new Congress.

One goad to keeping OCE may be the tea party movement. Fred Wertheimer, a campaign reform and ethics activist, noted in a letter to Boehner the Ohio Liberty Council, the main umbrella organization for 58 tea party groups in the state, supports efforts to strengthen it. Whatever one's view of the tea party's other positions, its commitment to open government is admirable.

Presumably the new Republican majority wants to claim the title bestowed by Pelosi on the old one: "the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history." Earning that accolade requires the Republicans to preserve and protect a robust Office of Congressional Ethics.



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