House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to “drain the swamp,” and rid Washington of corruption. It was an admirable goal as the House was recovering from scandals relating to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But her pet ethics initiative, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), got off to an inauspicious start and has left enemies simmering. Recent high-profile allegations by the independent body are only exacerbating the tensions.
At issue are pending investigations by OCE that allege only the appearance of impropriety – that fundraisers attended by some members of Congress in the days leading up to a crucial vote on financial reform created the appearance of a quid pro quo environment. While that nuance of appearances versus actual wrongdoing is important on paper, in reality, a referral from OCE to the House Ethics Committee is tantamount to a guilty verdict.
In other words, constituents back home tend not to be forgiving if their congressman appears to be caught up in an ethics scandal.
The broader debate pits an established political class whose own ethics body had devolved into a laughably ineffective black hole against a slew of “watchdog” groups whose ideal scenario seems to consist of a world that excludes private political donations altogether.
The current OCE investigation was launched after it was made public that a group of eight congressmen held or attended fundraisers with members of the financial industry in an 11-day period leading up to the vote. In each case, however, the fundraisers had been scheduled for months in advance, when the date of the vote was unknown.
“Most of the time Democrats don’t even know when the votes will come to the floor, so how would Republicans?” a House aide told The Daily Caller.
Even more mysteriously, only three members were referred by the OCE to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, whose investigations carry ramifications far beyond negative press coverage (which is oftentimes damaging enough). Five others committed essentially the same offense.
Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, Republican Rep. John Campbell of California and Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York were referred, while Republican Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, Chris Lee of New York, and Democrat Reps. Mel Watt of North Carolina and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota were not.
Of the three referred, only Crowley’s vote on the bill was remotely in question. In the end, every Republican voted against the bill. Crowley voted for the bill, presumably against the wishes of the financial interests who donated to him.
Why the other five were not referred is anybody’s guess.
A spokesperson for Hensarling, for instance, told The Daily Caller that his office was given specifics on why the congressman was cleared.
In a statement released by Campbell’s office, the congressman said: “I am perplexed by OCE’s decision, as they have presented no evidence that would suggest wrongdoing … Any suggestion to the contrary is baseless and unfounded, and I look forward to a favorable resolution and vindication in this matter.”
Many citizens, fed up with their government, assume the worst when it comes to congressional ethics. That also seems to be the approach the OCE has taken in the two and a half years since its creation. Critics say a well-intentioned proposal to increase transparency and ethical standards has turned into an out-of-control vigilante that wields arbitrary power.
Its crucial difference, separating it from the House Ethics Committee, is that it is an independent entity that accepts ethics complaints from non-members of Congress. That was a major issue of debate during negotiations for the OCE. Negotiations that began with tepid bipartisanship — Minority Leader John Boehner originally lent his support — but broke down over disagreements about disclosure requirements.
Democrats argued the board would need to be independent for two reasons. First, there was a general consensus that lawmakers investigating lawmakers wasn’t productive. Secondly, Democrats said the public had a right to file complaints against their representatives in Congress.
After talks broke down, the new office sat in limbo for six months. Then, according to what a senior House aide told The Daily Caller, the Democrats produced a completely partisan proposal that was written without consent or debate from Republicans. And this time, all disclosure requirements were left out.
Pelosi then proceeded to jam that version of the “ethical reform” bill through the House. “[Pelosi] had to break every arm in the chamber to get it passed,” said a senior House aide.
She promised results. According to Pelosi, this Congress was going to be “the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.” However, since its creation in 2008, the OCE has been more of a roadblock to that end than anything else.
For starters, part of the Democrat’s plan when they created OCE was that those who file complaints can be protected from identification. Put another way: those targeted by OCE investigations do not have the right to “face their accuser,” so to speak, a right guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment.
They also argue that investigations that ultimately prove fruitless can nevertheless have lasting damage on the innocent. “It is difficult for any member caught up in an investigation to escape unscathed,” said the senior House aide.
Fundraising in Washington D.C. is all but ingrained in the city’s culture. For members of the House especially, who are constantly campaigning to be reelected every two years, fundraising is an ongoing hassle. But along with the necessities of fundraising, there are always suspicions about its nature and those who participate.
Inside the Beltway, schools of thought are generally divided between the belief that money follows actions of congressmen and actions of congressmen follow the money. The current spat regarding the fundraisers held close to the financial reform vote are highlighting that tension.
“If holding a general fundraiser while Congress was in session voting on legislation that went through one of my committees is in violation of House ethics rules, then that is a broad new limitation on members’ fundraising activities,” said Rep. Lucas after he was exonerated early on in OCE’s investigation. He also criticized OCE for “punishing members in the press.”
Feuds have been fairly common between OCE and the official ethics committee, each publicly accusing the other of overstepping their bounds and undermining their authority. That was on full display last January when, in a report regarding an investigation into Democratic California Rep. Pete Stark, the Standards Committee openly criticized the OCE.
“The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (Standards Committee) concludes that the OCE conducted an inadequate review, the result of which was to subject Representative Stark to unfounded criminal accusations,” said the report.
Even Democrats are not fans of OCE. Democratic Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma said that the board “has not improved the ethics process … they have embarked on some investigations without merit and have done so publicly in a way that has hurt some member who have done nothing wrong.”
“It was a mistake,” Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri said last year. “Congress has a long and rich history of overreacting to a crisis,” referring to the Jack Abramoff scandal.
Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge even worked on a resolution earlier this summer that would strip OCE of most of its power and prohibit it from making its findings public.
So Pelosi’s own party is revolting against Pelosi’s idea of ethical reform. But the speaker — not just Pelosi but any speaker — is caught in a bind. Reigning in OCE will look bad, letting it go further will anger the members of the Chamber she is supposed to lead.
When contacted by TheDC, Communications Director for OCE, Jon Steinman, declined to comment.