On Ethics, Let the Minority Rule

The scandals surrounding former Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) threaten Democratic control of what Speaker Nancy Pelosi once boasted would be "the most ethical Congress in history." Just four years ago, a string of high-profile ethical fiascos likewise doomed Republican control of Congress.

It is no surprise, then, that the American public has lost faith in Congress. Several polls show approval of Congress at less than twenty percent. Each party promises to end the rot, yet neither party succeeds when in power. Partly this is due to a failure of political will. Yet the deeper problem may be structural, within the rules of the House itself -- specifically, the rules governing the ethics committee.

Though the House ethics committee (technically, The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) is made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, the chair is always chosen from the party that holds the majority in the House. Though it is meant to be independent, in practice, the committee's leadership is accountable to the Speaker and obeys the majority party's priorities, whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge of Congress.

Even when the ethics committee does its job properly, leadership by the majority party can create the impression that investigations are motivated purely by political concerns. That is the charge levied by Rep. Massa and others who claim they were threatened with ethics investigations to silence their opposition to the Obama administration's health care legislation.

The moral of the Massa mess is that the House must pass a rule-change requiring the leader of the ethics committee to be chosen by, and from, the minority party. This practice is common throughout the British Commonwealth. In the House of Commons, for example, the chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts is Edward Leigh, a member of the Conservative opposition.

The main reason for appointing a member of the minority to lead oversight bodies in the legislature is the fact that ruling parties will always be tempted to block serious inquiries into their own behavior. They have a clear conflict of interest, which over time tends to erode public faith in the integrity of the legislature, even in the absence of willful wrongdoing.

Opposition parties, too, have a conflict of interest. They face the temptation to investigate frivolous charges, or to launch "fishing expeditions" against leaders from the ruling party in the hope of finding something worth pursuing. Yet this conflict of interest also happens to align with the public interest in transparency and accountability. It harnesses political self-interest for the common good.

The American experience with opposition-led inquiries has generally been confined to those occasions upon which the majority party in Congress has differed from the party that controls the White House. Such circumstances of "divided government" may help the legislature to hold the executive in check, but they do little to enforce accountability within Congress itself. 

The U.S. also has the institution of the Special Counsel, who is appointed to investigate executive misconduct. This mechanism has been controversial over the years due to the wide-ranging powers that the Special Counsel enjoys. As broad as those powers are, they rarely reach the legislature itself. 

A rule-change placing the minority party in charge of the ethics committee might improve vigilance in the U.S. House and bridge the growing partisan divide in Washington. It would be a gesture of trust, a reminder that both parties believe in the rules of the game. 

Whichever party controls the next Congress should make such a change an urgent priority -- before the people's trust is lost forever.

Joel B. Pollak is the GOP nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives from the 9th district of Illinois.
The scandals surrounding former Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) threaten Democratic control of what Speaker Nancy Pelosi once boasted would be "the most ethical Congress in history." Just four years ago, a string of high-profile ethical fiascos likewise doomed Republican control of Congress.

It is no surprise, then, that the American public has lost faith in Congress. Several polls show approval of Congress at less than twenty percent. Each party promises to end the rot, yet neither party succeeds when in power. Partly this is due to a failure of political will. Yet the deeper problem may be structural, within the rules of the House itself -- specifically, the rules governing the ethics committee.

Though the House ethics committee (technically, The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) is made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, the chair is always chosen from the party that holds the majority in the House. Though it is meant to be independent, in practice, the committee's leadership is accountable to the Speaker and obeys the majority party's priorities, whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge of Congress.

Even when the ethics committee does its job properly, leadership by the majority party can create the impression that investigations are motivated purely by political concerns. That is the charge levied by Rep. Massa and others who claim they were threatened with ethics investigations to silence their opposition to the Obama administration's health care legislation.

The moral of the Massa mess is that the House must pass a rule-change requiring the leader of the ethics committee to be chosen by, and from, the minority party. This practice is common throughout the British Commonwealth. In the House of Commons, for example, the chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts is Edward Leigh, a member of the Conservative opposition.

The main reason for appointing a member of the minority to lead oversight bodies in the legislature is the fact that ruling parties will always be tempted to block serious inquiries into their own behavior. They have a clear conflict of interest, which over time tends to erode public faith in the integrity of the legislature, even in the absence of willful wrongdoing.

Opposition parties, too, have a conflict of interest. They face the temptation to investigate frivolous charges, or to launch "fishing expeditions" against leaders from the ruling party in the hope of finding something worth pursuing. Yet this conflict of interest also happens to align with the public interest in transparency and accountability. It harnesses political self-interest for the common good.

The American experience with opposition-led inquiries has generally been confined to those occasions upon which the majority party in Congress has differed from the party that controls the White House. Such circumstances of "divided government" may help the legislature to hold the executive in check, but they do little to enforce accountability within Congress itself. 

The U.S. also has the institution of the Special Counsel, who is appointed to investigate executive misconduct. This mechanism has been controversial over the years due to the wide-ranging powers that the Special Counsel enjoys. As broad as those powers are, they rarely reach the legislature itself. 

A rule-change placing the minority party in charge of the ethics committee might improve vigilance in the U.S. House and bridge the growing partisan divide in Washington. It would be a gesture of trust, a reminder that both parties believe in the rules of the game. 

Whichever party controls the next Congress should make such a change an urgent priority -- before the people's trust is lost forever.

Joel B. Pollak is the GOP nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives from the 9th district of Illinois.

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