When I learned that lawmakers on Capitol Hill were seeking to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, only one thing crossed my mind: It’s about damn time.
I realize that I might be in the minority on this, but bear with me. I, like most Americans, believe that all of our elected officials should be held to a higher ethical standard because of the power entrusted to them by our votes. At the same time, I also know that politicians are human and that there needs to be some type of mechanism in place to ensure that abuses of power are punished to the fullest extent of the law. But it seems to me as though many of the offices and committees charged with this simple task are failing their mission.
The Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent, non-partisan committee charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct against members of the House of Representatives and their staff. It’s governed by an eight-person Board of Directors of private citizens that cannot work for the government or serve as members of Congress. While I think the Office of Congressional Ethics is a good idea on paper, for a number of reasons, it just doesn’t seem necessary.
First and foremost, the OCE refers all appropriate cases to the United States House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which essentially does all of the same things as the OCE. So, in effect, there are two separate entities performing the same exact jobs, doubling the cost of ethics oversight to taxpayers. Moreover, the OCE has an absurd amount of discretion when it comes to handling allegations of abuse and misconduct that the official House committee does not. It can initiate investigations based on unsubstantiated complaints or news reports and publicize its findings even if a case proves to be fruitless.
These privileges alone should be cause for alarm, as it essentially means that I could make up an allegation about a representative I don’t like, submit it anonymously to the OCE and wait for the reputation-damaging circus that is an ethics investigation. Though I’m sure this isn’t something that happens every day, the fact remains that this amount of leniency lends itself quite easily to both wasteful investigations and wasted taxpayer dollars.
But above all else, my biggest issue with the Office of Congressional Ethics is one that can be applied elsewhere in Washington. Investigators need to do a much better job of distinguishing a professional ethics violation from a personal one. Nothing irritates me more than seeing a member of the House of Representatives request a hearing because someone from the opposing party cheated on his or her spouse. Such action, while horrible and worth condemnation, are not grounds for an ethics probe.
Now I’m not saying that we should suddenly ignore the fact that a congressman or senator cheated on his wife. After all, such an act suggests a disregard for honesty and virtue, both of which are characteristics I think most of us want in a politician. But a clearer line needs to be drawn between what is and is not an ethics violation. It was definitely the right call to launch an investigation into allegations made against Representative Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), since he allegedly used his position to sexually harass and then intimidate his aides. But I think that is completely different from the huge deal being made about Senator John Ensign (R-Nev.), who cheated on his wife because he apparently had other things on his mind than legislation.
Ethical probes should only be launched when an elected official is suspected of either breaking the law or hiding his or her actions. But that doesn’t seem to be happening these days. Investigations seem to be starting at the drop of a hat in this contentious political climate, and that is simply unfair to both the American people and our elected officials.
We deserve a government that works tirelessly to fix the problems facing our country. But we are entitled to a government that is prudent about which allegations it spends its precious time and money investigating. I suspect there’ll be a lot of talk about cleaning up Washington in the coming weeks as Election Day draws nearer and nearer. I just hope that those same people start realizing that some ethical lapses must take priority over others.
Noel Gordon can be reached at email@example.com.