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In The Public Interest: The Crystal Ball of Congressional Ethics Enforcement

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As we enter October, and the polarized election environment continues to sizzle with ethics accusations, it's a good time to take a hard look back at what happened in this Congress around ethics. In addition, looking forward-- it is important that strong ethics enforcement and maintaining the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) are priorities in the 112th Congress, regardless of which party rules the roost.

Currently, American's confidence in Congress is at an all-time low, (A recent Gallup poll clocked only 11% of voters with a great deal of confidence in Congress) doing away with an ethics watchdog like the OCE would send a clear message to the American people that the House is not serious about enforcing the ethics rules that govern their actions.

Looking back--is the "Swamp" Drained?

Naysayers have been working hard to make the pending ethics trials of Reps. Rangel and Waters a referendum on the success or failure of the Democratic House around ethics, however it is important to note that the question of whether individual members have failed to comply with ethics rules is different from whether ethics enforcement and the OCE is working.
In 2007 and 2008, in the wake of the failure of the previous Congress to put reforms in place that addressed the Jack Abramoff scandals, Speaker Pelosi enacted new ethics rules, new lobbying disclosure reforms, and the groundbreaking Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) --a new outside entity designed to filter apparent ethical breaches and refer cases meriting further investigation and action to the ethics committee.

So has the OCE worked?

In the first six months of this year, the OCE began 44 ethics investigations, up from 24 during the same period in 2009, according to the USA Today. The Office of Congressional Ethics has recommended that the House ethics committee take action against 13 lawmakers
The OCE has clearly played a critical role in the House this Congress--shining sunlight on the ethics process and giving the public a transparent window into its workings, as well as moving the ball forward and holding the Ethics Committee accountable to act on more cases. At U.S. PIRG, we would call this a success.

Reading the tea leaves...

Though we don't know what the make-up of the next Congress will be, we do know that led by House Minority Leader John Boehner, almost all House Republicans in 2008 voted against the creation of the OCE.

However, in midterm campaigns, the GOP has spoken out consistently on the matter of ethics, "the election-year pledge to 'drain the swamp' remains one of Washington Democrats' most glaring broken promises," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said to Rollcall. In addition to disdaining the ethics enforcement of the 111th, Republicans have been equally loud in their calls for further ethics reforms in the 112th, but time will tell whether this is rhetoric or reality.

So what will happen in the 112th Congress to the Office of Congressional Ethics? Without a crystal ball, all we can do is offer a recommendation to leadership.

It is clear that major strides have been made on ethics enforcement in this Congress and that to remove or alter the new ethics body, the OCE, would be a glaring error on the part of House members. No matter what the end game of this election cycle is--Congress owes it to a public low on trust to build on the progress that has been made in the 111th Congress and keep the office in place.