As the dust settles after the midterms, Speaker-elect John Boehner (R-Ohio) is considering the radically changed political situation and deciding what to do next. One uncomfortable issue he is soon to confront is how to handle the House ethics process.
To avoid returning to the bad old days when ethics violations were rampant, Boehner must demonstrate his commitment to running an ethical Congress. Many note that ethics violations such as those under former Majority Leader (and newly convicted felon) Tom DeLay (R-Texas), are a large part of the reason Republicans lost control of the House in 2006.
The best way to do this is by strengthening the Office of Congressional Ethics. This independent office was established by Boehner's soon-to-be predecessor, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in her effort to "drain the swamp." Though far from perfect, the OCE has done an admirable job in unenviable circumstances.
The ethics office has no subpoena power, and only a 30-day time frame to investigate any allegations against a member. If any wrongdoing is found, the matter is forwarded to the House Ethics Committee for review.
Even with these limitations, the OCE has referred 13 cases to the committee, including the case against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), whose trial was recently postponed. The ethics office was not involved with Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who referred himself to the ethics committee.
Yet, despite the ethics office's strong track record, Boehner has suggested he may dismantle the office. This is not a new position for him. The GOP leadership fought vehemently against the OCE's creation, and both Boehner and his deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), voted against it.
Boehner has long claimed to regret his most egregious personal ethical lapse, when he handed out campaign contribution checks from tobacco lobbyists as the House was voting on tobacco subsidies in 1995. I take him at his word here.
Certainly, in the intervening 15 years, he has not repeated that mistake and he was not implicated in the Abramoff scandal, which ensnared so many of his colleagues. Nonetheless, Boehner's threat to shut down the OCE does not inspire confidence that Republicans will take ethics more seriously this time around.
Closing down the ethics office would return us to the dark days of the ethics truce -- when unethical conduct went unchallenged. Under House rules, only members themselves -- not outside groups or individuals -- can file ethics complaints; and members have proven unwilling to call out their colleagues for misconduct.
At one point, this may have made sense. During the early 1990's, both parties turned the ethics process into a potent political weapon, filing complaints to gain electoral advantage.
In 1997, tired of the bloodletting, Speaker Newt Gingrich forged an agreement with Democrats, essentially locking the ethics committee's door. The net effect was that increasingly egregious ethics violations went unquestioned.
Finally, in 2004, Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) broke the truce by filing a complaint that my organization had drafted, detailing numerous ethics violations by DeLay, then the mighty majority leader. After being forced to confront DeLay's brazen violations of House rules, however, the committee returned to its largely stagnant state until the ethics office forced it to do its job, by repeatedly referring matters for further action.
Regardless of your view of the tectonic political shift, the 112th Congress presents a fresh chance to build a better Washington. Americans are sick and tired of the ways of Washington and are eager to see a new class of leaders exemplify the longed-for values of honesty and integrity.
By retaining the OCE and strengthening the ethics process, the new speaker has the opportunity to demonstrate that he, too, shares these values.
Note: Cross-posted at Politico.