Speaker Ryan Urged to Support Office of Congressional Ethics

A coalition of good government groups has sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) urging him to appoint a co-chair of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which should not be confused with the House Ethics Committee. The groups also encouraged Ryan to support OCE, which enjoyed lukewarm support, at best, from his predecessor John Boehner.

OCE was established in 2008 and is somewhat more independent that the Ethics Committee because its board is comprised of former members of Congress and private citizens, rather than sitting members. OCE cannot sanction members but can only make referrals to the Ethics Committee.

Its role and importance were demonstrated in the Charles Rangel case.  NLPC President Peter Flaherty tagged along on a Caribbean junket in November 2008 to sunny St. Maarten. He snapped photos and made audio recordings evidencing that the event was underwritten by big corporations like Citigroup, in violation of House Rules.  OCE took up the case, produced a detailed report based on Flaherty's materials, and referred it to the Ethics Committee for action. 

The Ethics Committee "admonished" Rangel who was forced to resign his Ways and Means Chairmanship. If not for the OCE referral and the resultant media coverage, the House Ethics Committee most certainly have covered up the violations.

Here is the text of the letter:

Dear Speaker Ryan:

One year ago, former Representative Porter Goss (R-FL) announced that he was stepping down as Co-Chair of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).  Mr. Goss joined the Office in July 2008.  His tenure, with his Co-Chair, former Representative David Skaggs (D-CO), who is still serving, was marked by a remarkable commitment to achieving bipartisan consensus.  Unlike the House Ethics Committee, the Office has functioned smoothly and has rarely been marked by partisan bickering.

Even though the Office continues to function and fulfill its investigatory responsibilities with respect to alleged violations of House ethics rules, the undersigned groups strongly urge you to move expeditiously to announce a replacement for Mr. Goss.  By naming a replacement, you will send a needed signal that you support the Office and that you are committed, as the institutional leader of the House of Representatives, to continuing the Office in the next Congress.

During its eight years, the Office of Congressional Ethics has compiled an admirable record of conducting impartial, professional investigations.  Its interpretations of House Rules have been both reasonable and consistent, thereby giving the Office a reputation for fairness and integrity.  These achievements were in no way guaranteed when the Office began.  The Office could have easily devolved into the kind of partisan bickering that has plagued the Ethics Committee.  Or, it could have interpreted House Rules in a manner that runs counter to a common-sense understanding of the Rules’ meanings and intent.  Thanks to the early leadership of Chairmen Skaggs and Goss, that has not, to date, occurred. 

We also must note our continued belief that, in light of OCE’s experience, the Office should have subpoena power to ensure full cooperation by witnesses essential to its investigations.  We urge you to support that change in the Rules for the 115th Congress.

We are aware that a small number of House Members from both sides of the aisle remain eager to eliminate or weaken the Office.  The Office’s cardinal virtues—including its dedication to avoiding entanglements in partisan politics and to following the evidence wherever it leads—apparently intimidate some Members, who would be more comfortable with a closed ethics process that relies only on sitting Members.

Their fear is unfounded.  By conducting impartial investigations and reasonably interpreting House Rules, the Office has provided important protection to Members who have been falsely accused of rules violations.  Because of the Office’s record to date, a finding that exonerates Members is viewed as highly credible by media and public alike.  This credibility provides Members the means to demonstrate the allegations were unfounded.

No more time should pass without a new Co-Chair.  We strongly urge you to appoint an individual from your party who will continue OCE’s commitment to fair and impartial investigations and to avoiding partisan posturing or favoritism.

We would be happy to meet with you to provide suggestions or to further discuss issues or concerns about OCE that you may have.

Campaign Legal Center

Citizens for Ethics & Responsibility in Washington (CREW)

Common Cause

Demand Progress

Democracy 21

Issue One

Judicial Watch

National Legal and Policy Center

National Taxpayers Union

Project on Government Oversight (POGO)

Public Citizen