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Flake: House Unwilling to Remove Ethical Cloud

Recent press reports indicate that the House leadership is considering a rules change that would diminish the scope and authority of the Office of Congressional Ethics. This is an apparent response to the OCE’s decision to forward information gathered during its investigation of the PMA Group to the Justice Department, bypassing the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in the process. The narrative seems to be that this is just another example of the OCE succumbing to mission creep or growing beyond its intended purpose.

[IMGCAP(1)]In the interest of full disclosure, I voted against the creation of the OCE in 2007. I felt at the time that the House should be able to establish appropriate standards and police its behavior through the ethics committee. I still believe that we should be able to do so. But this controversy over the OCE has effectively shown that when it comes to removing the cloud that hangs over this body relating to earmarks and campaign contributions, this body is unwilling, through the ethics committee, to take the necessary action to uphold the dignity of the institution.

After an investigation lasting more than a year, during which some 200,000 pages of documentation were accumulated, the OCE concluded that, “There is evidence that some of the commercial entities seeking earmarks from Members of Congress believe that a political donation to the Member has an impact on the Member’s decision to author an earmark for that donor.” This information was forwarded to the ethics committee, which agreed with the OCE’s conclusion. The ethics committee summarized the OCE’s findings as follows: “There is a widespread perception among corporations and lobbyists that campaign contributions provided enhanced access to Members or a greater chance of obtaining earmarks.”

But then, quite inexplicably, ethics dropped the matter, stating that to address the problem is “not within the jurisdiction of the Committee.” Let me state that again. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct says that it lacks the authority to establish a standard that will address what it concludes is a “widespread perception” of a link between earmarks and campaign contributions.

This defies reason. At the beginning of the 110th Congress, the House adopted rules requiring Members of Congress to certify that they have no “financial interest” in an earmark being sponsored. Financial interest has been defined by the ethics committee to include a direct or foreseeable effect on the pecuniary interest for the Member or his/her spouse. The relevant section of the House Ethics Manual then states that “campaign contributions do not necessarily constitute financial interest.”

How can the ethics committee lack the authority to set standards or interpret rules? This is particularly confusing when one considers that the committee can address the issue by simply amending the interpretation of “financial interest” it has promulgated in the House Ethics Manual.

One need not read very far into the committee’s summary of the OCE’s PMA investigation before realizing that Members, through their campaign committees, derive significant benefit from the “widespread perception” of a link between earmarks and campaign contributions. To pretend that this does not constitute “financial interest” is no longer a viable option. We are no longer acting in ignorance. The “wink-wink-nod-nod” game we have all known to exist with regard to earmarks and campaign contributions is well-documented, and the ethics committee’s definition of “financial interest” needs to be updated to reflect these findings.

So where do we go from here? We can shoot the messenger, as press reports indicate many Members are inclined to do, but the problem with this approach is that the message about an unseemly link between earmarks and campaign contributions has already been delivered. What we do with the OCE at this point is very much beside the point, little more than a sideshow. We need to concern ourselves with the dignity of the House. That is our collective responsibility.

As I have said many times before, the PMA cloud that hangs over this body rains on Republicans and Democrats alike. We’re in this swamp together. But we can’t grab a shovel while we’re covering our eyes and plugging our ears.

Rep. Jeff Flake is an Arizona Republican.

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