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House internal ethics office needs overhaul E-mail
Opinion
Saturday, 07 January 2017 10:16


A SECOND OPINION, The Wall Street Journal


The 115th Congress flopped into Washington on Tuesday with House Republicans proposing and then dropping marginal changes to an internal ethics office. The reversal is an unforced political error, but the GOP is right that the investigative body has the power to destroy reputations without due process.

By the way, Paul Ryan was re-elected Speaker Tuesday with one GOP defection, while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi lost four Democrats. But that news was dwarfed as the House considered rules for the new Congress, and Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte offered an amendment to restructure the Office of Congressional Ethics.

The office is composed of political grandees, often former Members, and it has no prosecutorial power. But it conducts investigations into Members or staffers and makes recommendations to the House Ethics Committee. The proposal limited what information can be released to the public and barred the committee from having a press secretary. Also banned: anonymous tips.

Mr. Ryan and other House leaders opposed the rule as badly timed. But the rank and file adopted the idea Monday night anyway, only to dump it on Tuesday after denunciations from the Democratic-media complex. The left rounded up callers to deluge Republican switchboards for "gutting" the outfit. Donald Trump couldn't resist piling on with a pair of tweets: "With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority."

The reality is that the office is at best redundant and perhaps worse. Democrats created the office in 2008 to deflect attention from a crush of corruption scandals, including charges against at least three Members. The left is pitching the place as an essential institution of self-government, but the Senate manages to function without a similar office.

As it is, the ethics office is a roving investigator that can publish reports with details that may not be accurate and can damage a reputation with little or no proof of guilt. Evidence of wrongdoing in travel, campaign finances and other matters can be handled by the House Ethics Committee, and if necessary law-enforcement agencies. Both are politically accountable, unlike the independent office.

Anonymous complaints are especially insidious, as subjects of an investigation may not know who is accusing them_and the accuser may never have to press his case. Nixing the communications director is also worthy: A press secretary is nothing but a designated leaker. The office is a great tool for government "watchdog" groups that are progressives posing as transparency enthusiasts, which renders the proceedings even less fair.

The burning question in the media has been whether Mr. Trump or public outcry deserve credit for the GOP's about-face. In any case, House Republicans will pay a political price for trying, then failing, to rush through ethics changes_after running on draining the D.C. swamp. By caving so precipitously at the first sign of opposition, they've also invited more such pressure campaigns.

The upshot is an embarrassing start for a new GOP Congress that is supposed to be stalwart for pursuing conservative reform no matter the opposition. Progressives are elated that their Trump "resistance" project notched a victory and will continue the fact-free outrage campaigns. If you think the political pressure is intense on ethics rules, wait until the left completes its nationwide talent search for the person most harmed by the GOP's health-care proposals. Mr. Trump will also figure he can rout any opposition with a tweet, not that he's known for restraint.

The shame is that a review of the ethics office is overdue, much as due-process rights have suffered under the Obama Administration_from college campus show trials to bankrupting legal companies. Maybe Congress can restore its own due-process guarantees after it does something for everyone else's.

 


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