Opinion Pieces

Goodlatte: Rules amendment strengthens mission of OCE

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Washington, January 3, 2017 | Beth Breeding (202-225-5431) | comments
Published on The Hill.

The word ethics carries a heavy weight in the halls of Congress, and with good cause. The men and women elected to represent the American people should be held to the highest standards. That’s something with which I wholeheartedly agree. Nearly a decade ago several Members of Congress were involved in major ethics scandals, some of which resulted in those Members serving prison time. While the legal system dealt with their actions in an appropriate manner, the House looked inward at its own practices to ensure that ethical challenges were being handled appropriately, in line with the Constitution, and in a manner that reflected the best intentions of our elected representatives.

Out of this review came the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE. This nonpartisan, independent office was founded partially to add an additional layer of review over Members and staff of the House of Representatives, but primarily to serve as a receiving forum for complaints from members of the public. As a former member of the House Committee on Ethics, and the acting Chairman of the Committee for one investigation, I know how important a robust investigative body can be to uphold the high standards expected of Congress by the American public.

Since the OCE was first created, it has gone through some growing pains, and the House has now had nearly a decade of results to make necessary improvements that will strengthen the OCE and provide important constitutional protections for those being investigated. As the House has done since the initial resolution creating the OCE, the Rules package adopted on the opening day of the 115th Congress includes important changes to OCE operations.
An amendment I offered builds upon and strengthens the existing OCE by maintaining its primary area of focus – accepting and reviewing complaints from the public – while providing additional due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify. It also changes the name of the OCE to the Office of Congressional Complaint Review (OCCR) to avoid confusion with the Committee on Ethics and more accurately reflect its mission.

Feedback from Members and staff having gone through review by the OCE has been that those under investigation need increased protection of their due process rights, greater access to basic evidentiary standards, and a process that does not discriminate against them for invoking those rights. The amendment seeks to strengthen each of these needs while maintaining the basic core of OCE’s functions. To be very clear, while the name may change, the office maintains its independence and mission to review complaints against Members and staff from the public.

For decades the House Ethics Committee has worked in a bipartisan manner to investigate alleged abuses by Members and staff. Their track record of confidentiality, of operating in a “hermetically sealed chamber,” is the gold standard for an investigative body. The OCCR should do the same to protect the accused’s rights and preserve the integrity of the investigation. Due to the sensitive and confidential nature of the investigations, the amendment provides strong protections against any disclosures to the public or other government entities, and requires that any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the Members. These provisions taken together ensure the rights of the accused are protected throughout the investigation and not subject to litigation by the media, as well as ensuring that any criminal matters are properly referred to law enforcement agencies by Members of Congress, not the unelected staff of OCCR.

An important principle of effective governance is that all parts of the federal government, whether found in the legislative, executive, or judicial branch, should be subject to proper oversight. That is why my amendment ensures that OCCR will be subject to oversight by the Committee on Ethics. This provision does not mean that the Committee on Ethics will be able to dictate outcomes or impede a properly conducted investigation, but rather that their budget, their rules and procedures, and their impact on House operations will be reviewed in the context of a fellow investigative body.

Another of the basic tenets of American law is that the accused have the right to confront their accuser in a court of law. Today the OCE is able to accept anonymous complaints, meaning literally anyone from anywhere in the world can send something through a website and potentially disparage the reputation of a Member without a basis in fact. Responding to an anonymous accusation drags good people’s names through the mud, costs the accused tens of thousands of dollars, and costs people their jobs. And when the anonymous complaint is found to be frivolous none of that is returned. This amendment requires OCCR to create rules that disallow anonymous complaints, something that will prevent frivolous complaints and allow the OCCR to focus their time and energy on legitimate complaints.

The bottom line is that if Congress wants the American public to have a venue to make complaints against Members of the House, an important goal that I share, then it needs to work, it needs to protect the rights of the accused, and it needs to remain confidential throughout the investigative process. The amendment in the House Rules package strengthens the mission of the OCCR, restores constitutional due process rights to the accused, and ensures that the Office of Congressional Complaint Review remains a strong and independent review board throughout the 115th Congress.

Bob Goodlatte represents the 6th District of Virginia and chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
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