As I watched the sad sight of Rep. Charles Rangel, a decorated Korean War veteran, stand in the well of the House to be humiliated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi with resounding censure like a misbehaving schoolboy, I was reminded of a joke I once heard about a critic's review of a singing cat: "It is not that the song was done well that mattered, but that it was done at all."
In policing its own members, Congress seldom has been a particularly tough cop. Only 22 House members have been censured in the body's history, the last two in the early 1980s for sexual misconduct with under-aged pages.
But it was Rangel's bad fortune to be nailed in his longtime friend and Democratic Leader Pelosi's crackdown to "drain the swamp." Democrats took back the House in 2006, partly by campaigning against a string of scandals that plagued 12 years of Republican rule.
As House speaker, she created a new body, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Unlike the Ethics Committee, it is made up of non-members. It lacked subpoena power, but anyone, not just members, can lodge a complaint. It has helped to significantly raise the number of cases under investigation, putting a new fear of actual punishment into the heads of members before they cross the line into criminal mischief.
Although the New York Democrat referred himself to the ethics committee, the ethics office referred his and 12 other cases to the committee, including that of Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., whose trial was recently postponed.
Now Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, who along with his deputy, Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, opposed Pelosi's formation of the new ethics office, is about to become speaker. He has a big decision to make on the ethics front:
Will he bring new vigor to the ethics office as good-government watchdog groups from the right and left are calling on him to do?
Or will he listen to an assortment of lawmakers that is unusually bipartisan for these polarized times in their united desire to see him scrap it?
The office is hardly perfect, but it's been more effective than the Ethics Committee, where members are asked to oversee fellow members. In the past two years, the office has looked into 69 cases and sent 13 of them to the Ethics Committee for further action, according to the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. The Ethics Committee doled out 11 disciplinary actions in that same time, which was more than its total disciplinary actions in the previous decade. By contrast, the Department of Justice prosecuted about 20 criminal cases related to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
"Now that the OCE is prompting the ethics committee to do its job," said Lisa Gilbert, Deputy Director, Public Citizen's Congress Watch Division, "members and staff are on notice that the ethics rules will be enforced before they cross the line into criminal behavior."
But in the unusual way that politics makes strange bedfellows, Republicans like Boehner who voted almost unanimously against forming the committee, have been joined in their opposition by some Democrats, including most of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Many caucus members feel Rangel is receiving too harsh a judgment in service of Pelosi's "drain the swamp" pledge and point to data that shows a disproportionately large number of black members have been targeted by her new ethics office.
Racial bias? That's hardly a new charge, but even Rangel and Waters, to their credit, acknowledge that with greater power, like that which African Americans have gained in the Democratic Congress, comes greater scrutiny. The very manner with which the ethics office has generated bipartisan criticism serves as a testament, in its own way, to the office's nonpartisan effectiveness.
Even so, black caucus member Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, has introduced a resolution to curb the office's authority. Now that a new Republican leadership is taking over, Fudge recently told Mother Jones magazine, "All options are on the table."
If so, Boehner should take the option of giving the ethics office more teeth, like full subpoena power. His best approach would be the one that President Clinton proposed for affirmative action in the 1990s: Mend it, don't end it.