Why Congress must retain a strong ethics cop

Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 7:40 PM

WITH BIPARTISANSHIP so rare, it ought to be a good sign when Republicans and Democrats agree on something. But that's not the case when it comes to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent entity set up two years ago, in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, to complement - and prod - the often-somnolent House ethics committee.

Trouble is, somnolence suits lawmakers just fine. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) commendably took the lead in establishing the new office, but members of both parties were unenthusiastic about a new ethics cop, and many would be delighted to see the OCE quietly disappear. That could be accomplished by simple inaction, if Republicans fail to include the office as part of the rules package to be adopted as the first order of business in the 112th Congress. Or it could be done through skillful legislative gutting, maintaining the shell of the office but further reducing its powers, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus have attempted to do.

Either approach would be a terrible mistake on the part of the new Republican majority. The previous ethics arrangement - a committee of lawmakers judging their peers and equally divided along partisan lines - was designed for stalemate and too often accomplished that aim. The new office, even without the subpoena power that it should have, has provided a crucial adjunct to the ethics panel without supplanting lawmakers as the final authority on disciplinary matters.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who is running the transition operation, told ABC News that "our focus on the transition is looking at other things that are much more important," such as transparency and other aspects of House operations. "We're not focused on the ethics side of things at all," Mr. Walden said. You don't have to go too far back in House history - no further, in fact, than Tuesday's conviction of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) of 11 rule violations - to understand how mistaken that attitude is.

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