The Washington Post has an editorial today that blasts what it titles the "Fudge Factor." That would be Rep. Marcia Fudge's resolution to weaken the House Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). We posted Fudge's resolution here. The Post takes note of Fudge's Chief of Staff who was admonished by OCE, then blasts the resolution:
Undercutting OCE's authority would be backsliding. The point of creating an outside watchdog was to prevent the ethics committee from sweeping things under the rug; all those on the committee are members of Congress. The panel is too often inclined not only to dismiss a complaint but to do so quietly, without airing the evidence. Lawmakers are understandably concerned that the ethics process not be used to tar them unfairly, providing fodder for attack ads in the next election, but there is also a public interest in full disclosure and robust enforcement. So far, the OCE -- which is made up of former members of Congress and experts chosen by the speaker and minority leader in equal numbers -- has proved a helpful force, and the ethics panel's unhappiness with the arrangement only underscores its importance.
The Fudge resolution would prevent the ethics committee from issuing any public statement in cases where the OCE recommends that a complaint be dismissed; the existing rule gives the ethics committee discretion to release information in such situations. Under the resolution, the OCE's report on the defense earmarks-for-campaign-contributions lobbying scandal involving the PMA Group would never have seen the light of day. Similarly, the resolution would prevent the release of any OCE report if, after an investigation by the ethics committee, a complaint's dismissal is recommended; under the current rule, the OCE report must be made public. This change would have prevented release of OCE's findings in the Caribbean trip.
In addition, the resolution would prevent the OCE from looking into any matter except on the basis of "a sworn complaint from a citizen asserting personal knowledge of any alleged violation." Currently, a preliminary review can be launched if two board members from differing parties ask for it. The board members are hardly rogue operators. That Ms. Fudge and friends fear their power to launch an investigation says less about the new ethics office than it does about the sponsors of this misguided resolution.
Congress needs stricter ethics rules and tougher enforcement. Members of Congress really shouldn't be backsliding on ethics. Really.