House Ethics Office Earns Its Keep, but Senate’s Not Interested

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
OCE Chairman Porter Goss (photo: Wikipedia)

With the help of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the U.S. House has increased the number of investigations into those who violate ethics rules. But the Senate has yet to follow the House’s lead and establish its own effort independent of the committee process to probe wrongdoing by members.


Since the creation of the OCE in 2009, the House Ethics Committee has handed down 20 disciplinary actions against lawmakers.


Compare that to the House Ethics Committee’s work prior to that, when the committee produced only 10 punishments over the course of a decade—and half of those came during a two-year span in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff broke numerous laws when he bribed lawmakers with gifts and other enticements to win their support for his clients’ pet projects.


OCE has been a positive influence despite having a small budget of $1.5 million and a staff of only nine.


“The Office of Congressional Ethics has had a dramatic impact on the activity and accountability of the House Ethics Committee,” a new study (pdf) by the watchdog group Public Citizen states.


The Senate doesn’t have an independent ethics board, and it shows. The Public Citizen report notes the problem of the “continued lethargy of the Senate Ethics Committee” in probing and disciplining senators due to the “absence of an independent fact-finding office to assist (and encourage) the Senate Committee’s efforts.”


“The lack of Ethics Committee censures and punishments in the Senate with well-known incidents of corruption among Senators as reported in the media” makes “the case for an Office of Public Integrity to serve as a supplemental investigatory body to the Senate Ethics Committee,” the report says.


Public Citizen cites Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana) as an example of members of the upper chamber who get away with possible ethics violations because of the impotency of the committee. Vitter threatened then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that he wouldn’t vote for a pay raise for Salazar unless he approved drilling permits. The Senate Ethics Committee did not sanction Vitter.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Case for Independent Ethics Agencies (Public Citizen) (pdf)

Watchdogs Want Stronger Congressional Ethics Office (by Hannah Hess, Roll Call)


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