Opinion

Ethics office effort raises questions of oversight, accountability and reform

Posted January 4

The president-elect has said he'll “drain the swamp,” promising ethics reforms in terms of American politics and how the United States does business.

Against that background, it was hard not to be somewhat startled by moves made Monday by members of the House to put the Office of Congressional Ethics under Congressional control. That’s the body created to be independent and unfettered enough to look into allegations that a member of Congress has done something questionable. It’s an office formed after a series of scandals involving congressmen in 2008, amid allegations that those charged with ethics oversight seemed reluctant to police their own.

Tuesday, following a lot of criticism from an array of sources — including Donald Trump — the group stepped back from the change and said they'd look more closely at the office and possible reforms.

The Washington Post explained the move that took place behind closed doors Monday by a 119-to-74 vote in a GOP conference meeting as a plan to "rename the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and place it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee.

“Under the proposed new rules, the office could not employ a spokesperson, investigate anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee, which would gain the power to summarily end any OCE probe.”

That it came up so early and out of public scrutiny raises interesting points regarding both oversight and perception.

My first reaction was probably somewhat typical, an angry expectation that Congress was putting itself above oversight. From a purely practical standpoint, it certainly didn’t look good as one of the first acts of a Congress that’s expected to take some ethics reforms seriously. That likely occurred to House leadership, too. Both House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) reportedly tried to talk the group out of the move when it was proposed, before the firestorm of criticism stopped it.

I know nothing’s ever as simple as it seems. My reaction ignored the possibility the office has gotten out of control, which is a claim that’s been made by people who have been investigated and by some others, too. Reporters covering the issue directly all noted that proponents of the effort to assert congressional control over the ethics investigators said they pushed the change because the office has been at times unfair. They said individuals have been denied due process and the system as it stands allows investigators to publish independent reports without Congress having any say about it.

I’m no Washington insider privy to the discussions and issues that may have arisen as a result of particular ethics investigations.

But I am an American citizen, a taxpayer and someone who really, really wants my elected representatives to do a great job so that we all flourish — and do it where I can see it. I long for bipartisan cooperation and genuine transparency, something that’s been lost. Elected officials have for many years now often treated the public as if it has no right to know what they’re doing — a problem on both sides of the political aisle. It’s not a matter of keeping things close for the sake of security; it feels more like officials believing they are too special to be accountable to the people who pay their wages and grant them power.

I believe we need that accountability — and I suspect independent oversight is more likely to be fair than an in-house version that may be based on party politics or friendships or, conversely, on rivalries.

That they walked back this early effort is a sign that maybe this Congress will be willing to consider scrutiny and criticism. Maybe, if we're lucky, they'll conduct their business where the public can see it -- and even chime in.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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