Congress Picks the Right Ethics Fight at the Wrong Time

Day one in the 115th Congress illustrated the “House of Cards” fallacy about Washington, D.C.

Rather than being run by savvy and competent conspirators, such as those portrayed in the hit Netflix series, the real D.C. is a House of Chaos. It is a place in which the most powerful people in the country often have no idea what is happening from one moment to the next. Rather than crafting a master plan, the powerful spend their days scratching their heads, confounded by the actions of their colleagues they can’t control.

Case in point: No one in his right mind would have scripted an opening day that included Congress proposing to gut a redundant ethics committee — the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) — only to be reprimanded, via Twitter, by the president-elect of the same party before reversing course and abandoning the proposed changes.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who didn’t get enough credit for preserving Congress’s earmark ban in November, wisely wanted to reform OCE on a bipartisan basis, but his colleagues opted for a frontal assault against a fixed position. The chaotic day, ironically, provided an indirect proof against claims of a dark conspiracy that needs to be policed by a special committee.

Sadly, the mismanagement of the message obscured the substance of the debate. The House was right to target OCE for elimination. At the right time, such as during consideration of the legislative branch appropriations bill that funds the office, the public would benefit from an honest, direct and tough debate about ethics in government.

The debate matters because it’s fundamental to voters. The public wants reform and both sides have very different visions of responsible representative government.

The chaotic day, ironically, provided an indirect proof against claims of a dark conspiracy that needs to be policed by a special committee

Conservatives believe you have a right to inspect the government’s checkbook. Liberals, on the other hand, believe the government has a right to inspect your checkbook. Liberals see the problem as money in politics. Conservatives see the problem as politics in markets. Conservatives see the solution as less government. Liberals see the solution as more committees and more regulation.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is a classic example of faux-progressive reform that washes the outside of the cup but leaves the inside filthy. Its backers say the office was created because Congress couldn’t be trusted to police itself with the bipartisan House Ethics Committee and that the process needed to be more transparent. Yet critics from both parties say the OCE has become a kangaroo court that denies members due process and routinely leaks confidential information to the press. In practice, the OCE is a taxpayer-funded public relations firm for watchdog groups that have their own fundraising goals.

Moreover, on its face, the office is Orwellian. Just as the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s “1984” was used to rationalize propaganda, the Office of Congressional Ethics was created to rationalize corruption. Founded in 2008 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, the OCE was created by a Democratic Congress that didn’t want to get rid of earmarks but wanted to show the public it was “doing something” about corruption.

More specifically, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wanted to protect a system that allowed her in 2007 to sponsor a $25-million earmark for a waterfront-redevelopment project that would have increased the value of several properties in which her husband had a financial stake.

At its founding, OCE had nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with self-interest. Pelosi has unapologetically called for a return to earmarks, perhaps so she can get on with the business of building up equity.

The OCE is also duplicative. No other congressional committee has a parallel advisory committee. Imagine a member proposing the creation of the House Judiciary Advisory Committee to Advise the House Judiciary Full Committee. This would be ludicrous. Yet, when it comes to ethics, to some this approach seems noble.

Finally, the congressional ethics regime was overzealous before the creation of the OCE, a problem that has grown worse since 2008.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is a classic example of faux-progressive reform that washes the outside of the cup but leaves the inside filthy

In 1997, my former boss, then-U.S. Representative Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a practicing physician, raised the ire of the House Ethics Committee because he continued to deliver babies in his home district. The committee initially cleared him to earn up to $20,500 a year (the outside earned income limit) but then reversed itself and said he couldn’t practice medicine at all because his profession involved a “fiduciary relationship” or a relationship of trust like a lawyer has with a client.

Rather than cowering, Coburn went on offense and put the committee and Washington on trial. In an “ABC World News Tonight” segment, Sam Donaldson asked mockingly, “Did the parents of babies Dr. Coburn delivered choose him hoping to sway his vote?” Donaldson ended the segment by quoting Dickens, “Sometimes the law is like a donkey, an ass.”

Coburn won that fight in the House (he would have resigned had he lost), but had to fight the same battle in the Senate and ended up leaving his practice sooner than he wanted.

The Coburn case is instructive because had the professional ethicists in Washington won in the late 1990s, they would have driven from office the citizen-legislator responsible for two of the most impactful ethics reforms in a generation.

Coburn’s double-barreled ethics reforms — ending earmarks and passing landmark transparency legislation with then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama that opened the books on federal spending — did more to reform government than OCE has or ever will.

At its founding, OCE had nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with self-interest

Coburn ended earmarks by arguing that earmarks were the gateway drug to Washington spending addiction and a debilitating distraction to reform. History has proved him correct. After the earmark moratorium was enacted in 2010, spending miraculously decreased and the House turned its attention away from chasing earmarks and toward the reform of our safety net programs. In 2011, the House passed Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” and the process of refining those ideas, especially an Obamacare replacement, is ongoing.

When Republicans take up funding for the OCE later this year they should play offense, not defense, and describe their vision of ethical representative government. If Democrats want a debate about transparency, Republicans should give them one. Let the GOP introduce resolution after resolution disapproving of past Democrat earmarks, beginning with those offered by Pelosi for her husband’s benefit. Republicans were hardly blameless during this era, of course, but they’re on the high ground and should fight with confidence.

Republicans should also consider amendments shifting money away from OCE to bipartisan priorities such as more doctors for the Veterans Administration or additional funds for cancer research. Let Democrats choose between witch-hunts and health care for veterans or fighting disease.

Thanks to reforms like the earmark ban the water level in the D.C. swamp is considerably lower. Yet, in 2016, voters, in their wisdom, correctly concluded D.C. was still too swampy.

Congress loves to change perception without changing policy. Congress doesn’t need an extra ethics committee. Our system already has a standing ethics committee. It’s called the electorate. They’re ready for real change and real results.

 John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.