Email #41, Subject: “strengthening” ethics?

Thank you so much for your lengthy response to my questions regarding your failed attempt to alter the Office of Congressional Ethics. I’ve never received a 1,327-word letter from an elected official before. Clearly this issue is of great concern to you and your many constituents who have also contacted you. But despite the apparent effort you and your staff have exerted, your defense of your actions is surprisingly flawed.

You state that your amendment would have “strengthened the existing OCE by maintaining its primary area of focus – accepting and reviewing complaints from the public.” To “strengthen” requires making a change; to “maintain” requires not making a change. This is your central defense, and it is self-contradicting. You use the word combination again: “The amendment sought to strengthen each of these needs while maintaining the basic core of the OCE’s functions.” Though you avoid the contradiction the second time, you instead reveal that “maintain” applies only to the OCE’s purpose, and that “strengthen” applies to something outside that purpose. The “needs” are those of the “Members and staff having gone through review by the OCE.” You wished to strengthen their “due process rights.” But doing so cannot be construed as “strengthening” the OCE’s “basic core” or “primary area of focus,” which is investigating not protecting those who are accused of unethical behavior.

In order to strengthen the rights of the accused, you would have eliminated the anonymity of complainants and kept the OCE’s investigations in a “private, confidential setting.” While these changes would benefit the accused, they would not “maintain” the OCE’s basic functions since those functions require the protection of whistleblowers and the transparency of investigations.

You also argue that the rights of the accused are greater than the OCE’s functions by evoking the “basic tenets of American Law.” And yet you begin your defense by stating the opposite: “The men and women elected to represent the American people should be held to the highest standards.” But for elected officials to be held to the highest standards, the OCE’s procedures cannot be “basic.” So while it is true that in civil courts “the accused have the right to confront their accuser,” the OCE holds members of Congress to a higher standard, one that you explicitly, though contradictorily, endorse.  As you state, “literally anyone from anywhere in the world can send” a complaint to the OCE. Whether such complaints have “a basis in fact” is the job of the OCE to determine. Preventing the OCE from receiving such complaints because they could “potentially disparage the reputation of a Member” would not maintain the OCE’s primary functions; it would undermine them.

Your amendment would have also moved the OCE under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Ethics. You argue this change is necessary because “all parts of the federal government … should be subject to proper oversight.” But you do not show that the OCE is not already properly supervised. Instead you state that the OCE is a “nonpartisan, independent office … founded partially to add an additional layer of review over Members and staff of the House of Representatives.” The Committee on Ethics, in contrast, is partisan. It is controlled by whichever party holds a majority in the House. How then would your amendment have “strengthened” the OCE’s non-partisan independence by making it subject to partisan control?

It is not surprising that your “amendment was supported by a majority of the House Republican Conference” in a vote that excluded Democrats. That fact and your contradictory defense deepen my concerns. Rather than persuading me that your intentions were ethical, you letter is evidence of your skill at rhetorical doublespeak and an Orwellian approach to governance. If anything, you have demonstrated the imperative of keeping the OCE independent and nonpartisan, since even you, the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is so ready and willing to place the “needs” of House members above the “highest standards” they are supposed to uphold.

Chris Gavaler


Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University where he teaches creative writing, contemporary fiction, and comics. He has published two novels, Pretend I'm Not Here (HarperCollins 2002) and School For Tricksters (Southern Methodist University 2011), and two nonfictions, On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa University 2015) and Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury forthcoming 2017).

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