New Report: Office of Congressional Ethics’ First 15 Years – Successes, Survival & Recommendations

As the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) marks its first 15 years, Common Cause is releasing, “The Little Engine that Could,” a short analysis examining the watchdog’s impact in the House of Representative. The report looks at the history behind the creation of the OCE, its successful nonpartisan record, and the most serious attempts by House Members to undermine or do away with the watchdog entirely. The report also suggests reforms, like codifying the OCE into law and giving it subpoena power, to further strengthen the independent watchdog.

The report highlights the OCE’s remarkable success since its creation, bringing accountability to the ethics process within the House of Representatives. Prior to the creation of the OCE, both parties had tried to ignore various ethics scandals over the years.

“Before the Office of Congressional Ethics was launched in 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives had time and again proven itself utterly incapable of policing itself,” said Virginia Kase Solomón, president of Common Cause. “Common Cause, and our members, helped lead a coalition to push for the creation of an independent ethics watchdog with teeth after a series of high-profile scandals in the mid-2000s.  We were one of a handful of groups that regularly provided feedback to the Special Ethics Task Force created by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), which ultimately led to the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics.”

From the outset, the OCE brought accountability to the House ethics process, and it has always done so in an even-handed and nonpartisan manner. As of Summer 2023 (the most recent figures publicly available), the OCE has investigated a total of 242 cases–118 involving Democrats and 124 involving Republicans.

To date, 228 of those cases have been resolved, with 104 referred by the OCE to the House Ethics Committee for further review. Of those referrals, 52 have involved Republicans and 52 have involved Democrats.

That evenhanded accountability angered some House Members on both sides of the aisle, leading to serious efforts to gut or do away with the OCE by both Republicans and Democrats in 2011, 2016, 2017, and 2023. Each time, Common Cause and its allies came to the watchdog’s defense.

“The Office of Congressional Ethics helped change the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil culture,’ in the House of Representatives, and that put a target squarely on the OCE’s back,” said Aaron Scherb, Common Cause Senior Director of Legislative Affairs. “Each time efforts were made to gut the watchdog, Common Cause helped marshal our members and allies in its defense — organizing sign-on letters, generating tens of thousands of calls and emails, focusing public attention on the attacks, and scoring votes that attempted to gut the OCE in our Democracy Scorecard.”

The report emphasizes that the OCE has more than proven its worth but that with modifications it could be even more effective. The first recommendation is to codify the OCE into law so that it does not need to be reauthorized every two years – a situation that has led to repeated attempts to undermine the watchdog. Another key recommendation is to give the OCE subpoena power to bolster its investigative abilities since compliance with the OCE is completely voluntary, and some House offices have refused to cooperate with investigations. The report also recommends that the Senate create its own independent ethics watchdog similar to the OCE. Just like the House, the Senate has always been hesitant to investigate the conduct of its own members and hold them accountable.

To read the “The Little Engine that Could” report, click here.