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Re-authorizing ethics office could improve public perception of Congress

a photo of Rick ClaypoolMost Americans think members of Congress are dishonest and unethical.

That’s the takeaway from a recent Gallup poll, which shows that the public ranks congressional representatives abysmally low in terms of honesty and ethical standards (barely better than car salespeople, who got last place).

How can Congress improve its standing with the public? It can start by not shutting down the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), its in-house, independent ethics watchdog.

Public Citizen has launched a campaign to urge Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to re-authorize and appoint new board members to the OCE. In less than a week, more than 16,000 activists joined the grassroots effort.

In Roll Call, Public Citizen’s Craig Holman was quoted: “Our letter [to Boehner and Pelosi] is brief and to the point. It  . . .  calls their attention to the fact that with half the board expiring, the agency is in danger of going defunct in the 113th Congress, and they certainly don’t want to see that happen.”

The OCE is charged with making sure that representatives in the U.S. House who violate ethics rules are investigated and held accountable — and it does so in a way that is transparent with the public. It also accepts tips about potential violations from the public.

Unlike the House Committee on Ethics, which is staffed by currently sitting lawmakers (who have an inherent self-interest in turning a blind eye to all but the most egregious violations), the OCE is made up of a nonpartisan board of private citizens.

“The House Ethics Committee has a horrible track record of just burying everything under the rug,” Holman told WAMU’s Morning Edition. “I mean, even during the Jack Abramoff scandal they hardly came out with any sort of punishments for anybody.”

Re-authorizing the OCE is easy — it does not require the passage of new legislation. All Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Pelosi have to do is re-authorize the OCE in the rules for the next Congress and appoint four new board members (two each) to replace the four outgoing members whose terms expire at the end of this month.

Nevertheless, it would be even easier for Boehner and Pelosi to do nothing and let the OCE die — but only if they think no one is paying attention. If the OCE isn’t re-authorized and a new board isn’t appointed in the next Congress, it dies. Current investigations into member misconduct will grind to a halt, and 2013 will begin with an even more corruption-prone Congress.

Add your name to the petition urging Boehner and Pelosi to re-authorize and appoint new members to the OCE at citizen.org/office-of-congressional-ethics-petition.

Rick Claypool is Online Director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Follow him on Twitter at @RickClaypool.