Little Notice, Big Mistake

Published: October 22, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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It was a story that got very little notice. In fact, I almost overlooked it in a small corner on a back page of The New York Times.

House Ethics Official Steps Down,” (Oct. 15) the headline reads.  “The staff director and chief counsel of the independentOffice of Congressional Ethics in the House, Leo J. Wise, (pictured), is stepping down in November to join the United States attorney’s office in Maryland…”

But that’s not what got my attention.  This did: “…and perhaps sidestep an inevitable political fight over the future of the ethics office.”

According to a survey conducted in April of this year, the Pew Research Center found “that 25 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Congress — the lowest rating the legislative branch has gotten in the history of the survey.”

In a report I completed in August, 2006 (Honesty and Trust in America) with Zogby International, and the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, I reported that Congress was given the lowest “trust” numbers at 76 percent. (Looks like they improved by 1 percent!)

At the time, I wrote“The Four Horsemen of the Ethical Apocalypse continues to be: Money, Power, Influence and Arrogance.”

In a list of recommendations I put forth, the second, following “Accountability” was “Independent Oversight. Sarbanes/Oxleyis a good start, but it’s just a beginning… political leaders should not be any more exempt from independent oversight than corporations.”

In 2008, the House leadership created a new independent Office of Congressional Ethics in order to “drain the swamp that is Washington,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. Considering the scandals that have followed, it would seem that the swamp is very much alive and doing well.

Back in March of this year, “House Democratic leaders moved to ban the practice of awarding earmarks to private companies,”The Times wrote, (Mar. 22) “long a source of scandals, a move that came just 12 days after the House ethics committee rejected recommendations from Mr. Wise’s office to further investigate two lawmakers for possible earmarks-related misconduct. And party leaders forced Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, to give up his gavel last month as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, even though the ethics panel only reprimanded him when Mr. Wise’s office found that he had improperly accepted a free Caribbean trip.”

Meredith McGehee, Policy Director for The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan ethics organization said “I would not have bet on this outcome. Leo may feel frustrated. But what he is doing is having a lot of impact.”

In February this year, The Times reported that “Mr. Wise was telling colleagues that he was dispirited that the House ethics panel, the jury of sorts for the cases he brings, was repeatedly brushing aside or playing down his office’s findings. More recently, he has described himself as surprised but gratified by the unexpected results.

“‘I went into it believing this was a way to make a contribution to the House, and I think we have,’ he said in an interview, where he avoided discussing his relationship with the ethics committee. ‘We provide increased transparency and accountability in how the House handles ethics.’”

However, according to the most recent report from The Times, “…lawmakers quickly complained that the ethics office was opening cases in response to frivolous accusations.”  Many cases have been dismissed the House’s own Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

“If Republicans win a majority in the November elections,” TheTimes writes, “they could well move to abolish the office.”

Big mistake.

In my 2006 report, when asked, “What 2 or 3 specific changes would have to take place in order to improve your trust in government today?” more than 8,000 respondents called for “more focus on holding people accountable” and “improved Congressional investigation/oversight.”

If we are ever to return trust and confidence in elected leaders we need independent oversight now, more than ever.


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