U.S. House: Groups from Across Political Spectrum Urge House Leaders to Strengthen House Ethics Process

CLC Staff
Oct 6, 2014
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Today, a broad range of reform, conservative and taxpayer organizations joined with scholars to urge House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to strengthen the House ethics process. The National Taxpayers Union, Taxpayers for Common Sense and Judicial Watch joined reformers in calling on the bipartisan House Leaders to make the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) permanent, to grant the Office subpoena power and to bring the work of the House Ethics Committee out from behind closed doors through increased transparency in the process.  

“The Office of Congressional Ethics has brought a level of accountability to the House ethics process yet the final arbiter -- the House Ethics Committee -- remains a secretive committee that has garnered a reputation for dysfunction and protecting Members,” said Meredith McGehee, Campaign Legal Center Policy Director. “OCE has a proven track record.  Giving it subpoena power will improve the credibility and accountability of the House ethics process. Further, the Ethics Committee itself must increase its own transparency if it is to shed its reputation as the committee of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.’”

Those signing the letter include the Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Common Cause, Democracy 21, Judicial Watch, Thomas Mann, League of Women Voters, National Taxpayers Union, Norman Ornstein, Project On Government Oversight (POGO), Public Citizen, Sunlight Foundation, Taxpayers for Common Sense and James Thurber.

The full letter to the Speaker and the Minority Leader follows:

 

October 6, 2014

The Honorable John Boehner                                    

Speaker of the House                                                 

U.S. House of Representatives                                  

Washington, DC  20515                                            

 

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi  

House Minority Leader

U.S. House of Representatives

Washington, DC  20515

 

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,[1] 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.

Sincerely,

Campaign Legal Center

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)

Common Cause

Democracy 21

Judicial Watch

Thomas Mann
League of Women Voters

National Taxpayers Union

Norman Ornstein

Project On Government Oversight (POGO)

Public Citizen

Sunlight Foundation

Taxpayers for Common Sense

James Thurber

To read the full letter, click here.

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