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House Should Improve Its Ethics Standards

First, two corrections. In my column last week knocking the Republican Study Committee’s budget proposal as a dumb idea, I made two errors of fact. First, I was wrong in saying the plan immediately erases the federal role for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; in fact, it phases them out over several years. Second, I erred in stating that the RSC plan removes all federal Medicaid support to the states, even as they struggle with the additional load driven by a sagging economy; it would only ax the additional aid that Congress provided to account for that bad economy. So, still a dumb idea, just less dumb than I suggested.

Next, a couple of acknowledgements of important events. The first, a very sad one, is the recent death via an automobile accident of former Rep. Jay Rhodes (R-Ariz.). Jay was a good man, a solid and conscientious conservative legislator who respected Congress and worked diligently to represent his district. He was the son of one of my all-time favorites, former Republican leader John Rhodes, and his values and approach reflected those admirable qualities possessed by his dad.

The second event is a happier one: the 85th birthday of one of the greatest public figures of our lifetimes, Abner Mikva. Mikva is a true rarity, with distinguished service in all three branches of government as a longtime and great Member of the House, a federal appeals court judge and White House counsel. Mikva is also one of the nicest human beings on the planet. May he live, and stay involved in public service, until he is 185. In fact, he is continuing to do his part via a fourth step in national public service, on the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics.    

Which brings us to the House ethics process, back in the news. The Ethics Committee once again dissed the OCE by dismissing several cases against lawmakers who had raised campaign funds in close proximity to important policy decisions from parties directly and substantially affected by the votes of those lawmakers. While the committee ruling said it was necessary to look at the totality of the circumstances surrounding each action, the clear message from the Ethics Committee fits its longtime world view: If there is not a direct and blatant violation of the letter of the law or a rule, there is no problem. As the committee basically said last Congress in the care of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), even the House manual is only advisory.

I believe this is a deeply unfortunate mindset. The standards of the House should be much higher. Imagine if a driver stayed within the speed limit, did not run a red light and did not make an illegal U-turn, but nearly hit several pedestrians, switched lanes in a fashion that caused another car to swerve into a telephone pole and honked loudly at 2 a.m. in a residential area, disturbing the sleep of the residents. Now imagine that the police shrugged at the reckless driving and said they won’t do anything unless there is a specific and direct violation of the traffic laws — that there are no penalties for reckless driving without the specific violation. If that were known universally as the driving standard, we would all be a lot less safe and a lot more nervous, and the standards of civil society would be degraded.

A standard that sets the bar higher than an inch off the ground does not mean violations of the spirit of rules, or dubious actions that simply don’t pass a smell test, need to be punished with draconian penalties. Simple and direct reprimands will do. But if lawmakers know they have nothing to fear, including embarrassment, unless they violate the letter of the rules, that there is no general standard of acceptable behavior and no problem with any appearance of conflict, then many will do things that reflect badly on Congress but stay just inside the rules. That will be especially true of fundraising, in an era when Members are under intense pressure to raise more and more and more money, for their own campaigns and for “the team,” and when the post-Citizens United jungle means every Member will try to stockpile money to guard against a stealth assault from anonymous groups. But it is also true for other areas of behavior.

The OCE, which has not only led the way with transparency but made every one of its decisions by consensus across the board, has taken a more realistic and admirable view. It has not made the office a favorite among House Members.   

Indeed, Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner offered a few barbs for the OCE this week in an interview with the Mobile Press-Register. The Alabama Republican, who voted against the creation of the independent office, said that “the vast majority” of House Members privately want the OCE disbanded but that “political realities” kept the incoming majority from doing so — that “the far left and the far right” would have criticized Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) if he had moved to kill the office. That was a rather stunning characterization of the tea party members who offered strong support for the OCE after the election; actually, support for an independent office doing initial investigations of potential ethics violations goes well beyond the far left and the far right. Bonner, to his credit, pledged to try to work better with the office.

I do not envy Bonner his job. Chairing the Ethics Committee is truly a thankless task. He and former Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) started out the 111th Congress with a commendable working relationship, even if their agreements tended to be around slamming the OCE for overreaching. But the bipartisan spirit got shredded toward the end of the Congress over the still-pending case of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), and Bonner will have to try to find a better relationship with the committee Democrats under new Chairwoman Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.). Let’s hope there are better relationships on the committee and with the OCE — and that the result is more admirable standards set for the House.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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