Could it be that ethics are improving on Capitol Hill?

In its first two years, the Office of Congressional Ethics was doing a brisk business, taking on 69 cases for review. But that number was cut almost in half in each subsequent session, the OCE reports. And from April through June, it only started one new preliminary review.

Now, there could be plenty of reasons for this. Politicians with better ethics? Or with a new watchdog, pols are more careful about slipping up or skirting the rules?

Maybe. Maybe not. The high volume in the early days was in part because in the 111th Congress there were several cases with multiple members of Congress under review, like the Caribbean junkets led by Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and each person gets a separate casefile.

But the more likely answer is that the newness of an independent board created to review potentially bad acting members of Congress opened the floodgates for public watchdogs eager for a place to air their grievances. It was like a shiny new toy everyone rushed to play with.

The OCE released its quarterly report Wednesday that breaks down how many matters it’s reviewed this spring.

The report also compares the committee’s activity over the previous congressional sessions. The 113th Congress has already surpassed the 112th and it’s only halfway over, but the OCE is unlikely to match the amount of activity from its first years. (The transmit referrals are what the OCE sends to the House Ethics Committee, made up of members of Congress who are then responsible for reviewing and deciding whether to pursue further.)

(Office of Congressional Ethics 2nd Quarter Report)
(Office of Congressional Ethics 2nd Quarter report)

Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen, said the drop-off makes sense because when the OCE was created there was suddenly a place for watchdog groups to send their long lists of complaints. Since those first years, Holman said, the groups now have a better sense of what the OCE will and won’t look into.

“All of us had been frustrated because prior to the OCE there was no place for public complaints (of ethics violations),” he said. “It’s declined over time because OCE reviews them in a very cautious and prudent matter … We’ve all adjusted to a more reasonable level of filing complaints.”

But Stan Brand, a D.C.-based attorney who was general counsel to the House under Speaker Tip O’Neill from 1976 to 1983, doesn’t see it that way. Brand said the existence of OCE is “overkill,” and that the office has gone beyond its intended role. He mused that maybe the fewer reviews of incidents is a product of the office being more selective.

“I think they got a lot of flack from lawyers like me, maybe they made a policy decision to be a little more exacting before they would go forward, and separate the cases that really had merit from those that didn’t,” Brand said.

Holman thinks the OCE is doing a good job, but wishes the self-policing House Ethics Committee would do more with the referrals it receives from OCE. He does not believe the drop-off in activity has anything to do with members behaving better.

“I’m astounded by the types of ethics violations I see happen on a somewhat regular basis … the travel violations, the gift violations,” he said.

Close to half of the complaints of alleged misconduct over the past five years has been related to campaign activity.

(Office of Congressional Ethics 2nd Quarter report)
(Office of Congressional Ethics 2nd Quarter report)

Most recently, the OCE has referred to the House Ethics Committee campaign-related cases, including one involving Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) and one involving Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.); as well as one related to payments to a former staffer turned lobbyist involving Rep. Luis Guitierrez (D-Ill.).

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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