The Incoming Republican Congress Must Avoid The Ethics Boomerang

Our guest blogger is Lisa Gilbert, Deputy Director of Congress Watch at Public Citizen.

This week, as both parties hold their leadership elections for the House of Representatives, is a good time to look forward towards what the House will look like under the leadership of incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). When it comes to ethics, we urge the incoming leadership to avoid following in the footsteps of the most recent Republican Congress.

In the Republican-controlled 109th Congress, there was an unprecedented level of corruption, with lobbyists exerting influence through wining and dining, travel junkets and fundraising; lawmakers engaged in a record amount of “earmark for campaign contribution” trade-offs. In addition, former Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-TX) K-Street project made it clear to the public that lobbyists had a favored role in the halls of Congress.

Flipping back through the scrapbook of this period’s abuses, the snapshots invoke predictable disgust:

    In 2003, disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave away an estimated $180,000 in food and wine to members of Congress and staff. While at the nearby Capital Grille, it was standard to see congressional staffers giving their lunch checks to the nearest available lobbyist, who eagerly paid.

    In 2005, lawmakers took 1,340 trips at a cost of $3.6 million, usually billed to businesses and K Street firms with legislation pending before Congress and frequently aboard corporate jets carrying or filled with lobbyists.

    — Both the number and dollar amount of earmarks reached an all-time high in this era, with 13,997 earmarks worth $27.3 billion in 2005 and 9,963 earmarks worth $29 billion in 2006, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

    — With the “K Street Project” in full swing, lobbying firms were pressured by Republican leaders to hire prominent Republican Party operatives and staffers in return for special access.

Though the K Street Project came to an official end with passage of HOLGA, Boehner is again working very closely with K Street. He has put together a list of about 75 to 80 potential chiefs of staff for newly arriving Republican members of Congress, including current and former Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists who have been recommended or have inquired about working for an incoming Republican member.

When citizens in the 2006 and 2008 elections cast their votes, exit polls demonstrated that the influence of lobbyists and the ethics scandals plaguing the Republican-controlled Congress were the single largest factor behind their choices. As a result, in 2007, one of the first things House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) did was enact groundbreaking new ethics and lobbying rules for the House. The House also passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HOLGA) and created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an outside entity designed to filter apparent ethical breaches and refer cases meriting further investigation and action to the ethics committee.

The passage of HOLGA and the creation of the OCE have been monumental steps forward—in particular, the OCE has helped to shine a light on the ethical lapses of members of the House. We must strive to continue to improve our ethics process rather than turn back the clock to the style of the prior Republican majority. At a time when American’s confidence in Congress is at an all-time low, (a recent Gallup poll clocked only 11 percent of voters with a great deal of confidence in Congress) it would be a slap in the face to a public low on trust to remove important ethics protections like the Office of Congressional Ethics.