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House Office of Congressional Ethics Working Well; Senate Ethics Enforcement a Failure, Public Citizen Report Shows

Oct. 15, 2014

House Office of Congressional Ethics Working Well; Senate Ethics Enforcement a Failure, Public Citizen Report Shows

Ethics Working Group Urges Reforms

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) has dramatically improved the ethics process in the U.S. House of Representatives, while the ethics process in the U.S. Senate, which lacks such an office, has failed, a new Public Citizen report (PDF) shows.

Public Citizen released the report today with the Ethics Working Group, a broad coalition of organizations that called on the Senate to create a similar independent ethics agency and for the House OCE to be made more permanent.

The OCE – the first semi-independent office in history to oversee and complement implementation and enforcement of the congressional ethics process – was established in 2008. It investigates allegations of improper conduct by lawmakers and staff and, if needed, refers the cases to the House Ethics Committee.

Since the OCE was established, the number of disciplinary actions taken by the House Ethics Committee has increased dramatically. From 1997 through 2005, the House Ethics Committee took only five recorded disciplinary actions. From 2006 though 2008, years highlighted by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, the committee again took only five disciplinary actions. But the committee has taken 20 disciplinary actions between 2009 and 2014.

“The Office of Congressional Ethics helped ensure a more active and accountable House Ethics Committee,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and report author. “The OCE and committee are working well together, and it shows.”

In contrast, in the Senate, which has no OCE-like agency but has had plenty of scandals, the number of disciplinary actions taken by the Senate Ethics Committee has fallen to none. Since 2007, no disciplinary actions beyond a few letters of admonition have been taken against senators, and the Senate Ethics Committee has issued only three letters of admonition. Nothing has come out of the agency since 2012. Of the alleged violations reported to the committee each year, a number that has steadily fallen from 99 in 2009 to 26 in 2013, the overwhelming majority are dismissed without even a preliminary inquiry.

“The Senate ethics process needs more transparency,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “For the public to have faith that Congress is ethical – not an easy proposition – the committee must cease operating largely in secret.”

The Ethics Working Group today released two letters sent on Oct. 6 and today to the leadership of the House and the Senate, respectively, laying out its recommendations for improving the monitoring and enforcing of congressional ethics. Signers of one or both of these letters include Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Common Cause, Democracy 21, Judicial Watch, League of Women Voters, congressional experts and authors Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein, National Taxpayers Union, Project On Government Oversight (POGO), Public Citizen, Sunlight Foundation, Taxpayers for Common Sense and political scientist James Thurber.

Proposals for improving the ethics process in the House and Senate include granting OCE subpoena authority, making the agency more permanent, creating a comparable Office of Senate Ethics (OSE) for the Senate and increasing transparency of the process in both chambers.

View the Ethics Working Group letters to the House and Senate.

Public Citizen’s report, “The Case for Independent Ethics Agencies: The Office of Congressional Ethics Six Years Later, and a History of Failed Senate Accountability,” is available.