Steve Lunetta: Ethics in The Swamp


“The Republicans are shutting down the Ethics Committee? Shame on them! What happened to ‘draining the swamp’? See? Hilary was right! What is that burning smell? My hair!”

Well, no, the Republicans didn’t. But I don’t suppose anyone noticed the later-aborted effort was aimed at one of the most poorly managed congressional organizations of all time.

For those who have not heard, House Republicans were re-tooling the Office of Congressional Ethics to bring some fine-tuning to an office that may have gotten a bit out of control.

But that is not how it was playing out in the press. Several news sources were claiming that Republicans were “gutting” the Ethics Office and removing safeguards.

When I first heard about the “gutting,” it did not make sense. Surely there had to be more information to gain an understanding of what was going on.

As it turns out, that is exactly the case.

One of the critical changes would have been to require the authorization of the House Committee on Ethics to review information before its release to the general public.

It would seem logical that House members should be consulted and approve release of information before an appointed watchdog group can release information to the press.

While abuses can exist in either direction, I would want a committee of elected representatives ruling on a case involving a member of their own as opposed to a disconnected “watchdog” that could be politically manipulated without repercussion.

I suspect that there have been incidents in the recent past where the Office of Congressional Ethics has taken irresponsible actions or been used as a political tool.

Another rules change would have involved preventing the Ethics Office from investigating wrongdoing that occurred prior to 2011. Let’s think about that one for a minute.

If something happened in 2010, that is about seven years ago. Ever heard of the statute of limitations?

Frankly, the pursuit of old issues is a non-value-added activity unless it involves gross criminal activity. We don’t need our elected representatives continuously looking over their shoulders worried about past decisions that could have been perfectly legal at the time but became illegal with the passage of time and a new regulatory environment.

In the coming days, Congressman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, who proposed the rules changes, will be able to explain the complete rationale for revisions.

One of the areas that Goodlatte discusses in his website is the lack of due process for those accused of an ethics violation. It would seem logical that review by a body of peers before information can be released to the public (or law enforcement) is a fair and good thing to do.

Another abuse that has come to light is “anonymous complaints” that come to the Office of Congressional Ethics and are investigated. Once again, this is an area ripe for abuse if a member is targeted for baseless harassment.

If you are a member of management in the private sector, you have probably been hit with an “anonymous complaint.” I know many businesses who no longer acknowledge this type of communication.

Of course, a myriad of reasons exist for employees to hide their identity when reporting a problem. However, the right of the accused to face his or her accuser trumps the “right” to anonymity.

The real travesty in all of this was how poorly the changes were communicated during the attempt to execute. If the reasons were explained to the public and made more gradually, I am confident that Americans would understand and be supportive.

Such ineptitude is unfortunate. In the current political climate, sudden changes should not be made without adequate explanation and improved timing.

What is truly remarkable in all of this is that President-elect Trump saw the issue immediately. Trump recognized that there are more important issues at hand, such as the economy and health care.

Once again, if Trump can maintain America’s focus on the things that really matter, his presidency will be successful. So far, he has been setting and changing policy with the well-placed phone call or strategic Twitter. I think this is a fundamental paradigm shift from presidents we have seen in the past.

Again, I say let’s give him some time. Trump may have a level of political acumen that may surprise us all.

Steve Lunetta is a resident of Santa Clarita and has a swamp in his front yard from all the rain. Drought? Like heck. He can be reached at [email protected].

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