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Public Citizen to Boehner: Do Not Repeat the Ethics Mistakes of the Last GOP Congress

Nov. 19, 2010  

Public Citizen to Boehner: Do Not Repeat the Ethics Mistakes of the Last GOP Congress

Weakening Ethics Rules or Ethics Enforcement Would Be More of Exactly What Voters Dislike About Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  Incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) should remember the ethics scandals that overwhelmed the previous Republican-controlled Congress and chart a better course in the new Congress, Public Citizen wrote in a letter sent today to Boehner.
Boehner and the Republican conference will pass a new set of rules for the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 5, when they begin the new congressional session. Republican leaders have not uttered a word about what the conference will do with the sweeping ethics rules of the last Congress that banned wining and dining, restricted lobbyist-sponsored travel and created a semi-independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) that has ensured effective enforcement of the ethics rules.

 “The last time Republicans controlled the House, Congress was wracked by outrageous scandals, causing voters to throw the Republicans out in 2006,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Members of Congress traveled the globe in private corporate jets, wined and dined at the most expensive Capitol Hill restaurants on the tab of K Street lobbyists, and buried any allegations of impropriety under a dysfunctional ethics committee. We are urging Boehner to do things differently this time around.”

 This cozy relationship between corporate lobbyists and lawmakers burst into public view first with the 2006 plea bargain of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, in which he agreed to point the finger at those lawmakers whom he bribed, and later with the conviction of nearly two dozen lawmakers and staff for corruption. In response, voters expelled the Republican majority. The incoming Democratic majority immediately approved a comprehensive ethics package in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 that remains in effect today. Some of these new ethics rules include:

• Prohibiting lobbyists and organizations that employ lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers and staff, such as meals or free tickets to sporting events;
• Restricting gifts of travel for lawmakers from corporations and unions to no more than one-day trips, just long enough to fly a lawmaker in to give a speech at a conference, and banning travel on corporate jets; and
• Creating the semi-independent OCE, staffed by people from outside Congress, that investigates ethics complaints and issues public records of their findings.

The OCE has been instrumental over the past two years in making the ethics process work.
The panel has generated more active investigations by the House ethics committee into ethics violations than ever before and has been key to providing transparency over the ethics process. For the first time, the public now knows about allegations of wrongdoing and the settlement of these cases.

“Boehner did not like the strict ethics rules back then, so I fear his first order of business
may be to loosen the ethics rules or, worse yet, eliminate the ethics panel that enforces the rules,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen. “If Boehner does return the 112th Congress to the old days of ‘anything goes,’ he is very likely to face another round of scandals and another rebuke by voters.”

 Public Citizen recommends that Boehner keep and even strengthen the OCE by granting it the authority to require testimony from witnesses; maintain and actively enforce the gift ban against wining and dining; and expand the restrictions and transparency on congressional travel to cover government-sponsored official travel as well as privately sponsored travel.

Public Citizen’s letter is available here.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit public interest advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.