Judicial Watch Supports Strengthening Ethics Enforcement for Congress
(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton issued a statement today calling upon the House of Representatives Republican and Democratic leadership to strengthen ethics enforcement. Last month, Judicial Watch joined with government watchdog groups from across the ideological spectrum in encouraging House leaders to support the continued operation of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), noting that the OCE could disappear in the next Congress even though it “has played an important role in helping protect the integrity of the House and its members.” The informal congressional ethics coalition this week also pushed for a strengthening of the ethics enforcement through simple reforms to the ethics enforcement bodies in the House of Representatives. The text of the letter, dated October 6, 2014, is as follows:
Dear Speaker Boehner and Democratic Leader Pelosi:
The process the U.S. House of Representatives currently employs to investigate and resolve allegations of ethical improprieties and violations was significantly improved with the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). The Office has provided a place for allegations to be credibly heard and investigated and has alleviated some of the most serious concerns about a process that had become utterly dysfunctional.
But there are still weaknesses in the current system that need to be addressed quickly and meaningfully. We the undersigned groups urge you, in bipartisan agreement, to publicly endorse these changes:
- Make OCE permanent.
As was noted in a previous letter, we urge you to publicly and expeditiously announce your intention to continue the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) for the 114th Congress. The OCE has provided a credible means for allegations of violations by Members and staff to be investigated and, if warranted, dismissed and has compiled a stellar record of conducting fair investigations and bipartisan cooperation. Yet the OCE lives in a state of instability, existing tenuously from Congress to Congress. OCE should be made a more permanent institution of Congress.
- OCE should be given subpoena power.
Currently, the OCE does not have the power to compel testimony from witnesses when investigating allegations of ethics violations. As a result, the Office can be hobbled in its efforts to complete its investigation — which in turn undermines its fact-finding function and the scope of its recommendations. In providing this power, rules can be included to ensure the power to issue a subpoena is wielded carefully in a bipartisan manner and to protect against abuses. But without it, an uncooperative witness can stymie an investigation, blocking the OCE from working as intended and shielding important aspects of an investigation from review.
- Increase transparency of and access to information from the House Committee on Ethics
The House Ethics Committee continues to do most of its work behind closed doors, giving rise to reasonable suspicions that it is more interested in protecting individual Members than the integrity of the institution. One important step that can be taken to increase the Committee’s credibility is to increase and improve the public availability of documents pertaining to House ethics, such as all current and historic guidance (“pink sheets”) issued by the Committee. In addition, many of the ethics documents made available through the Clerk’s office should also be online, such as legal defense fund disclosures and statements of recusal. We applaud the Committee for publishing its current and historic decisions online and hope it will continue the practice.
We look forward to hearing your response to these proposals.
Campaign Legal Center
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)
League of Women Voters
National Taxpayers Union
Project On Government Oversight (POGO)
Taxpayers for Common Sense
In his statement today, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said:
Judicial Watch’s leadership helped establish the Office of Congressional Ethics, a major reform to help police congressional corruption in the House of Representatives wrongdoing. The Office of Congressional Ethics has done some good work and has withstood the resulting attacks by both Democrats and Republicans who didn’t like the new accountability forced upon them. But the Office of Congressional Ethics is perennially on the chopping block and can’t even issue subpoenas to House members who are under investigation. And the House Ethics Committee, which too often acts like a “star chamber,” needs to be more transparent about what it is and is not doing to enforce basic rules of ethics in the House.
Americans think Congress is fundamentally corrupt, and stronger ethics enforcement for the House of Representatives should be a priority for both political parties. The House needs to strengthen and open up its ethics process to help diminish the well-deserved perception of its ill repute.