Ethics commission never got a presidential push
As a senator in 2006, Barack Obama tried to pass a law that would have created an independent commission for investigating ethics violations in Congress.
That bill never went anywhere, but the attempt set the stage for a promise during his 2008 presidential campaign, when Obama said he would use the "power of the presidency” to fight for the creation of an independent congressional ethics agency.
Before Obama took office, Congress passed a law creating a similar agency, but one that looked only at the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Office of Congressional Ethics -- an independent and bipartisan agency with six congressional appointees and no elected officials -- survives today and does much of what Obama hoped his commission would do.
Since its inception in 2009, the office has reviewed 92 cases of possible ethical misconduct and referred 32 cases for consideration in the House Ethics Committee.
Government reformers we interviewed said the office has some weaknesses. It has too few on staff -- nine people -- and too small a budget -- about $1.5 million. In just its second year, it underwent a defunding attempt by a member who had been the subject of a recent investigation. It also lacks subpoena power, meaning that it relies on the willingness of House members to answer questions and supply information to investigators.
Despite these structural problems, the office appears to be working effectively, so far.
"It has added serious credibility to the ethics process, in both directions -- exonerating members who have done nothing to merit ethics charges or discipline, and making sure that miscreants are held to account,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
"It has operated in a surprisingly bipartisan fashion,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Daniel Schuman, a policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit government transparency group, said "they've fulfilled their mission admirably,” but the office would be better off with subpoena power, more flexible timeframes for conducting investigations and some guarantee that House members aren't going to vote to defund it next session.
On the Senate side, the Senate voted back in 2007 against creating the Office of Public Integrity -- its own version of an independent ethics agency. (The vote failed 71 to 27, and Obama was one of the 27.)
"The vote was so lopsided against it, we know we don't stand a chance of creating a similar office on the Senate side,” said Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist at the nonprofit open-government group, Public Citizen.
As president, Obama could have used the bully pulpit to push the Senate to take a similar approach. He could have spoken about the issue in a public speech or media interviews. We scoured the White House website, searched for news articles, and looked through Votesmart.org, a non-partisan website that tracks public statements by politicians. We didn't find any sign Obama ever talked about a congressional ethics agency once he became president. None of the experts we interviewed knew of such support either.
When we last updated this promise, we said we were on the verge of rating it a Promise Broken, but wanted to see if there would be any effort from the White House. Now, two and a half years later, there's still no evidence that Obama has used "the power of the presidency to fight for an independent watchdog agency to oversee the investigation of congressional ethics violations." Yes, there's the House ethics group, but it was approved before Obama even took office. We rate this a Promise Broken.
Interview with Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, July 3, 2012
Email interview with Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, July 2, 2012
Email interview with Daniel Schuman, policy counsel and director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency at the Sunlight Foundation, July 2, 2012
Email interview with Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, July 2, 2012
CQ Floor Votes, Senate Roll Call Vote 18, Ethics and Lobbying Overhaul - Office of Public Integrity, Jan. 18, 2007 (subscription)
GovTrack.us, the Senate vote on an amendment to create an Office of Public Integrity in the Senate, Jan. 18, 2007
S.2259: Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission Act of 2006, Feb. 8, 2006
Searches on Thomas, CQ.com, Whitehouse.gov, Votesmart.org, CQ Researcher, CQ Weekly and LexisNexis
McClatchy Newspapers, Bipartisan House vote defeats bid to defund ethics office, July 22, 2011
As Obama focuses on executive branch ethics, push for new Congressional agency wanes
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would "use the power of the presidency to fight for an independent watchdog agency to oversee the investigation of congressional ethics violations so that the public can be assured that ethics complaints will be investigated."
This promise stems from popular frustration with congressional scandals, which helped the Republicans lose their congressional majorities in the 2006 elections and damaged the reputations of a number of Democrats as well. Both chambers of Congress traditionally operated with ethics committees filled by current lawmakers, a fact that led some critics to argue that the committees are too tolerant of their colleagues' indiscretions.
In early 2007, incoming Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California pushed for an independent office, and after some internal battles, House members finally voted to create one more than a year later, in March 2008. That was several months before Obama won the presidency.
The House's Office of Congressional Ethics is directed by an eight-person board of private citizens, though some of them are former members of Congress. The office has the power to undertake two phases of reviews when ethics violations are alleged. Once those are done, it either recommends that the existing House ethics committee take up the case or that the case be dismissed. The board may also issue reports on the cases it reviews.
According to news reports, critics on both the left and the right have said they are underwhelmed by the new office's work so far, noting, among other things, that it lacks subpoena authority.
Meanwhile, the Senate declined to go as far as the House did, rejecting any independent body on ethics.
Since the inauguration, the Obama White House has directed a notable amount of attention toward ethics and transparency, though one of its cornerstones -- a ban on employing former lobbyists -- was so undermined by waivers that it earned a Promise Broken from the Obameter. Still, while the White House has been active on executive branch ethics issues, it has not mustered any effort to use the bully pulpit to toughen the congressional ethics process. A search of the White House Web site turned up no exhortations by the president, and experts in the field we spoke to said they hadn't heard anything either.
Obama's decision to focus on the executive branch rather than the legislative branch is not surprising. Because of the separation of powers under the Constitution, the president cannot simply order Congress to do something. He can only cajole members to act. And for now, there's no sign that he's doing that. We were tempted to rate this a Promise Broken, but the administration has continued to move forward on other ethics fronts, so we'll give it the benefit of the doubt and rate it Stalled.
Office of Congressional Ethics,
, accessed Dec. 11, 2009
Politico , " Slow Start for Pelosi's Watchdogs ," March 25, 2009
The White House, "Ethics Update" ( blog post ), March 10, 2009
E-mail interview with Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, Dec. 10, 2009
E-mail interview with Jim Harper, director of information policy studies, Cato Institute, Dec. 10, 2009