The clock is ticking down on 2012 and the “Fiscal Cliff”. The event is something like the weather – everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Out my front door in St Paul it is 18F on a moonless night, the stars drifting by as they would on any other night. Nothing is happening here, just as it is in Washington. But nothing means many different things at different times.
Could the nothing of Washington be any worse? We’ve only recently learned that the lack of a Farm Bill will likely double the price of milk, among other strange effects that will roll across the stillness of this Minnesota night like an approaching Alberta Clipper. If we learn one thing in the middle of a big continent it’s that it could always be worse. And yes, there is something horrible lurking in the silence of inaction – the death of the most effective anti-corruption watchdog Congress has ever had to deal with.
The story that has rarely been told is the need for the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a panel created four years ago as an independent body to handle investigations of misdeeds in Congress. There had been a number of high-profile scandals, such as the sweeping corruption of lobbyist Jack Ambramoff, that had lowered public opinion of Congress. New speaker Pelosi wanted to change this and, she gambled, the potential risk of her people getting snared was outweighed by the improvement in public opinion of Congress itself.
Those of you well versed in the ways of Niccolo Machiavelli can guess what a liability it became.
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and 19 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus introduced a bill in June 2010 to curtail their power. “OCE is currently the accuser, judge, and jury,” Representative Fudge said at the press conference announcing their bill. “This isn’t the case in the American justice system, and it shouldn’t be so in Congress.” The allegation was that minorities were unfairly targeted – and had little recourse to defend themselves. It has been the most public challenge to date.
In total, 37 cases were forwarded to the House Ethics Committee for potential punishment. They were also made public. The OCE survived Speaker Pelosi and has now stood on watch over Speaker Bonior and his congress, making themselves a bi-partisan pain. And now it is time to appoint half of the panel of the OCE and renew their funding, all of which also expires today.
Somehow, no one has gotten around to submitting the bill to fund the OCE. Or appoint the new panel. Or, for that matter, establish a procedure to even submit names to the bi-partisan organization for appointment. There are, of course, other things to do such as … well, whatever Congress has been doing on this “Fiscal Cliff” thang.
This appears to mean that the OCE will dissolve, or at least fade into the beautifully carved woodwork of a House Committee room until action is taken. At this point, neglect of this sometimes troublesome independent body is easy to explain as a mere oversight – an especially convenient one.
So, when you’re asking yourself, “Can the situation in Congress get any worse?” wait a moment and the answer will come to you. It’s a lot like a still Minnesota night in the middle of the Winter. It can always be worse, and if you wait a bit you know it will be.
Happy New Year!