Like kindergarteners told to stay seated when their teacher leaves the room, politicians don’t always follow the rules when no one is watching. Perhaps that’s why so many politicians resent the Office of Congressional Ethics, the organization tasked with investigating questionable congressional behavior and forwarding its evidence to the House Ethics Committee (which is supposed to police the iffy antics of fellow members). The OCE is a government body with a lofty mission and few of the tools necessary to live up to it, thanks to the legislators it both watches over and depends upon for resources; shockingly, people who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about their job prospects aren’t enthused by entities noticing when they do bad things. It’s even less surprising, then, that some members of the House Republican Caucus secretly voted to quash a few of the office’s powers shortly before the 115th Congress gaveled in on Tuesday, hoping that no one would notice.
A few of the legislators had personal beefs with the OCE, their names having been tattooed in the office’s back catalogue alongside allegations of sexual harassment, banned trips to Taiwan, and favors for friends. But Tuesday’s vote wasn’t the first time legislators have tried to fire their appointed bureaucratic conscience. Back in 2008, there were some who would have been pleased if the OCE hadn’t been created in the first place. “If you have a single ounce of self-preservation,” one representative, who would later attract the watchdog’s eye, pleaded at the time, “you will vote ‘no.’” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi still found enough people who wanted to “drain the swamp” that is Washington, D.C. (nothing changes) and the OCE was born.
The office has faced bipartisan loathing over the years, a sign that some would take to show that it is performing its job spectacularly. In 2011, Democratic Representative Melvin Watt, once investigated and later cleared by the office after an inquiry into whether a fundraiser influenced a policy decision, introduced an amendment that would have halved the organization’s budget, claiming that its inquiries were “unfair and abusive of the rights of members of the House.” In 2016, Republican Representative Steve Pearce wanted to slash the OCE’s budget, or get rid of it entirely, after one of his staffers was briefly scrutinized for alleged misconduct. He told The Huffington Post that his proposed change was a threat, giving “notice to OCE that we are watching what you’re doing.”
Yet the office persists. But for all the screaming it draws, the OCE doesn’t have that much power over members of Congress. It doesn’t have the ability to subpoena or punish members. The House Ethics Committee, made up of the same representatives that the OCE is supposed to police, is tasked with these responsibilities. Often, instead of punishing those who do wrong under its watch, the committee just waits them out, letting representatives retire before an inquiry can end. Michele Bachmann, Steve Stockman, Tim Bishop, Paul Broun, and Tom Petri all left town before it had time to reach a verdict on their various cases. Out of the dozens of other cases recommended to the House Ethics Committee over the years, only two resulted in punishment. When legislators leave office, any pending ethics investigations evaporate. But the lack of weapons doesn’t mean that the OCE is powerless, and it is certainly far better than nothing. It can still notify the public of what it’s been up to, and hope that shame works as an effective deterrent from illicit politics.
The legislators who oppose the OCE the most are perfectly aware of the soft power of this public shaming. The Republicans’ recent proposal to disembowel the OCE would have prohibited the entity from employing a spokesperson anymore, or even notifying the public of its investigations. It would have given it a new name — the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, a moniker that actually seems fitting, as all it ever does is inspire legislators to grumble. That same publicity of questionable behavior, however, ended up saving the office in the end — less than a day after the intended gutting was first reported — after initial reports of the proposal sent angry constituents to the phones. Even Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist whose actions helped create the OCE in the first place, said getting rid of it was stupid.
And then, suddenly, a tweet! Inevitably, Donald Trump aired his feelings on this episode — and shortly before the ethics proposal died — but he was not responsible for the reversal, no matter how much credit he gets. We challenge anyone to find proof of support for the OCE in the president-elect’s tweets.
Only a man as obsessed with optics as our soon-to-be president would complain that a move meant to turn a swamp into a bog of eternal stench was a mistake because it would look bad to make it the first legislative action of the Trump era.
At least for now, the OCE will still be around for legislators to gripe about, trying to solve the same problems that forced it into being. “The public does not trust us,” one representative said when advocating for the committee nearly a decade ago. Given what just happened in 2016, no one can argue that statement isn’t still true. Maybe instead of retreating on ethics oversight, we could expand it this year. The Senate doesn’t even have an independent ethics office; since the last batch of constituent phone calls worked so well, maybe those in search of a better government could make that their next big ask. And maybe expanded powers for the existing OCE? As Congress has made clear time and time again, they aren’t always on their best behavior unless they know someone is watching, either in the form of an appointed watchdog, or citizens simply reminding them every single day.