Things to Watch Out For: Weakening the Office of Congressional Ethics

You probably remember that the Monday before the 115th Congress was sworn in, in the dead of the night on a holiday, House Republicans tried (and failed) to pass rules to weaken the independent ethics office meant to police members of Congress.

Last month, however, Meredith McGehee, Issue One’s Chief of Policy, Programs and Strategy, highlighted one little-noticed rule that did get passed by House Republicans that could damage bipartisan ethics oversight. And, just last week, the story was featured by the Washington Post.

As McGehee pointed out in January, these under-the-radar, partisan maneuvers to undermine bipartisan ethics cooperation are not going to go away. Here are three other ways that the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) could be weakened that we must watch out for:

  1. Taking down the OCE website: Like many government entities, the website of the Office of Congressional Ethics is the main means for the public to engage with the office, per its congressionally mandated role. The website shares the needed information about duties the agency performs, provides a means for making a submission regarding an allegation of a violation of congressional ethics rules and houses its public reports. Taking down the site would make it significantly more difficult for the OCE to perform its congressionally-mandated role, risks the loss of institutional knowledge and reporting and deprives the public of an avenue to ensure their government remains trustworthy and ethical.
  2. Eliminating the OCE’s ability to speak publicly:  There is no longer any OCE staff person who is publicly identified as the spokesperson for the independent agency. It is not clear to the media or the public to whom one should go with questions regarding the work undertaken by the institution. At times, if a reporter or member of the public calls the main number, the OCE answering machine states the mailbox is full. The office is designed to protect the public’s trust in government. If the public or news media is unable to reliably find out about the agency’s work, then the OCE is failing in its purpose.
  3. Reducing investigative staff either through budget cuts or attrition: The OCE works under tight timelines for conducting its preliminary review (30 days) and its second-phase review (45 days). Reducing the number of staff would significantly affect the ability of the OCE to appropriately conduct its investigations. Just recently, an investigator left the OCE to join the White House Counsel’s office (link?). It is unclear if he will be replaced. It is not uncommon for both parties to target watchdogs or agencies with these tactics to limit their investigative powers.

Issue One will continue to closely monitor these and other potential maneuvers to weaken this important office, as well as any other conflicts of interest, ethics issues and government reform issues as they appear on Capitol Hill, in the courts and at the White House.