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Congressional ethics investigations show the system is working

Probes of Reps. Charles B. Rangel and Maxine Waters showcase House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reform efforts.

August 04, 2010

Republicans are gleeful over the possibility that two prominent Democratic members of Congress, Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, could face high-profile ethics "trials" this fall, just in time for the November elections. The party line was summed up on "Fox News Sunday" by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner: "[House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi said four years ago that it was time to drain the swamp…. But the fact is, she has not kept her promise. The swamp is alive and well." Actually, the actions against Rangel and Waters are proof that Pelosi is doing just what she said she would.

Two years ago, with heavy backing from Pelosi and concerted opposition from Boehner, the House created the Office of Congressional Ethics, which is staffed by professional investigators and overseen by a six-member, independent board chosen by the majority and minority leaders. Its job is to examine allegations of corruption by members of the House and make recommendations to the Ethics Committee for further investigation. But its most important function is to improve transparency by releasing the results of its probes to the public — thus pressuring the Ethics Committee to take action. In February it put out a 329-page report alleging that Rangel violated House disclosure rules on corporate-sponsored travel, and on Monday it released a 79-page summary of its findings on Waters.

In the past, the Ethics Committee could dismiss complaints against members without publicly revealing the results of its probes, a system that encouraged coverups and partisan deal-making. Now, the preliminary allegations against Waters are on full display. That obviously doesn't mean the swamp has been fully drained, but it does mean the slippery creatures inside are easier to see. And even though that might hurt her party in November, we have Pelosi to thank for it.

The new visibility is deeply disturbing to some in Congress. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus complain that they're being subject to disproportionate scrutiny by the Office of Congressional Ethics and are trying to rein in its powers. Though it's true that at least eight members of the caucus are under investigation, that's possibly less a function of race than the fact that black members of Congress are frequently veteran lawmakers from "safe" seats, traditionally the group most susceptible to corruption.

Waters, who is accused of setting up a meeting with Treasury Department officials to benefit a bank in which her husband was a significant investor, will have her day in court. Meanwhile, voters can read the allegations against her, as well as her rebuttal, and come to their own conclusions. That's just as it should be.

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