In-Depth: Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress as part of a package of five ethics and transparency bills (including the NOPE Act, Taxpayers DIME Act, Protecting Defense Dollars Act, and NO FLIGHTS Act) aimed at cleaning up corruption in D.C. and restoring faith in Congress. This bill specifically seeks to strengthen the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) and hold Congress members accountable to the American people. When he introduced his package of five bills, Rep. O’Halleran said in a press release:
“When I was elected to Congress, I made a commitment to clean up Washington and end the special taxpayer-funded perks for elected officials and bureaucrats. The first bills I introduced would have protected an ethics watchdog office, banned first-class flights for members of Congress, and frozen Congressional salaries, among other things, and I am proud to re-introduce them today. We must hold our government leaders to the highest standards, and with so many high-profile ethics violations in the past years, it is clear we have failed to do that. No matter who controls Congress or the White House, we have to hold everyone accountable regardless of party. I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to increase transparency in Washington.”
When he introduced this bill in the 115th Congress in March 2017, Rep. O’Halleran said in a press release:
“When I was elected to represent the 1st District, I made a pledge to my constituents that I would do all I can to promote transparency and accountability in Washington. [This] bill does just that. Elected leaders should not hold themselves to a different standard than the American people. With such a low confidence in Washington, it is time for Congress to eliminate conflicts of interest and abuse of taxpayer dollars on lavish perks. I will not allow either party to weaken oversight of Congressional ethics. We need to stop talking about changing Washington and work together to make it happen.”
Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, expressed her support for strengthening the OCE in an August 2018 The Hill op-ed, writing:
“Americans deserve a government and public servants who work through their disagreements to find solutions that are in the public’s best interest. One reason why Washington seems broken is because too often the people we elect have lost their way by focusing on doing the bidding of wealthy special interests or using their public office for private gain… Trump and his administration’s hostility to ethics standards and transparency has emboldened members of Congress to play by their own rules… Luckily for the American people, there are practical solutions that Congress could enact to create a more ethical and accountable government. The first thing Congress needs to do is make the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) a permanent body. Since its creation in 2008, the OCE has been authorized only by the rulebook of the U.S. House of Representatives. There have been numerous attempts over the last decade to weaken or entirely get rid of the OCE, although those efforts are often met with bipartisan pushback. Congress must pass legislation to make the OCE permanent. Congress should also strengthen the power of the OCE by giving it subpoena power to compel testimony from witnesses. Protecting and expanding the independence and integrity of the OCE is crucial. After all, it was the OCE that first investigated (former) Rep. (Chris) Collins (a New York Republican who decided not to seek reelection after being indicted on allegations of insider trading) and raised concerns about his behavior. In the U.S. Senate, there is no independent ethical investigative body like the OCE. It should be a priority… to pass legislation to create a similar OCE-type body in the Senate. Transparency is also key in ensuring accountability in our government. While the House Ethics Committee continues to conduct much of its business behind closed doors, suspicions spread on whether the committee is truly doing its job or instead protecting individual members of Congress. Making more of the committee’s documents and proceedings public is needed. Congress should also prioritize updating the disclosure rules in the STOCK Act, which were gutted by Wall Street lobbyists before the bill passed in 2012. These types of reforms, some which are included in Rep. Tom O’Halleran’s (D-Ariz.) CLEAN Act, would strengthen ethics and accountability in Congress, but are just a start.”
Of Note: The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) is an independent, non-partisan entity charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct by Members, officers, and staff of the U.S. House of Representatives and referring matters to the House Committee on Ethics when appropriate.
The OCE was created in March 2008 after the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff, a well-connected GOP lobbyist, pled guilty of conspiring to bribe public officials. During the 115th Congress, the office received contacts from over 13,300 private citizens (up from 6,285 in the 114th Congress) either making allegations of misconduct or seeking information about the office’s work.
However, despite the high volume of contacts, the OCE actually initiated fewer actions in the 115th Congress than in previous Congresses: it began a preliminary review of 22 cases, fewer than in any previous Congress, of which seven were terminated and 15 advanced to a second phase review. Of the 15 cases advanced to the second phase review, seven had the second phase review extended. Of the 13 cases transmitted to the House Ethics Committee, two were referred with a recommendation of dismissal, and the remaining 11 were referred for the committee’s review.
In October 2017, an OCE report found that there was “substantial reason” to believe then-Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) had violated federal law by sharing inside information with investors at an Australian pharmaceutical company. While Rep. Collins’ office originally said the OCE report was “spurred by unfounded accusations that trace their origin to political opponents,” the Congressman was eventually charged with insider trading, and he chose not to seek reelection for his seat.
At the start of the 115th Congress, House Republicans attempted to undermine the OCE by moving it under the House Ethics Committee’s control, sparking outage across the country and showing OCE’s vulnerability to political gamesmanship. The Republicans ultimately removed their rule after an outpouring of concerns from across the country.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / tzahiV)