Congress’s Unpopular Watchdog

John Boehner

Its unpopularity among lawmakers grows with its caseload, but its record suggests professional evenhandedness, with 32 cases forwarded so far to the House Ethics Committee for further review, and dismissal recommended in 26 other cases. The immediate problem for the office is that four of its six board members must be replaced as soon as the new Congress convenes in January if the investigative watch is to continue. But, of course, this need has not been addressed by current House leaders, who are racing back home for elections.

The dismal record of the House Ethics Committee trying to investigate and judge its own colleagues prompted the creation of the O.C.E. after the Abramoff corruption scandal. When Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, was speaker in 2008, she proposed the bipartisan agency to show allegations would not be swept under the rug. While there has been pressure to stop financing the office, John Boehner, a Republican, has also supported the office as speaker.

With big-money politics presenting ever greater ethical threats, Congressional leaders must promptly name independent professionals to the oversight agency. The shortcomings of the House’s own Ethics Committee were on display again this week when its poorly handled investigation of Representative Maxine Waters in a banking influence case ended with her exoneration. Lawmakers had to hire an outside counsel to wade through allegations by the committee’s own chief counsel that House staff members had leaked information about the case to Ms. Waters’s political adversaries. The outside lawyer’s services cost taxpayers at least $1 million. That money would have been more effectively spent on the Office of Congressional Ethics, which has already proved it can do a far better job.

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