Sat | Jan 20, 2018

Editorial | A reminder from Washington

Published:Thursday | January 5, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Something dramatic and important unfolded in Washington this week, in which, at least for the time being, even the permissive Donald Trump finds himself on the right side of decency and history. The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) remains in place and intact. Republicans, in Nicodemus fashion, attempted to gut it.

The OCE has been around since 2008. An independent, non-partisan body that reviews and investigates allegations of misconduct against members of the US House of Representatives and staff, it was established in the face of the prosecution and jailing of a slew of congressmen for corruption, and complaints that the House Ethics Committee was too protective of members.

The OCE is overseen by an independent board of six, who agree on what investigations to pursue and can proceed on the basis of anonymous information from the public. Generally, its findings are public, but formal sanctions against congressional members remain the remit of the House Ethics Committee and the wider membership of the House of Representatives.

People on either side of the congressional divide have been unhappy with the OCE for its robust pursuance of its mandate, but it is what the Republicans attempted to do about that at the start of the new congressional term that startled people. On Monday, the House Republic Conference, against the urgings of some of their top leaders, who were concerned about timing and form, voted to effectively kill the OCE. The charge was led by a Virginia congressman and chairman of the House Judiciary committee, Robert W. Goodlatte.

With the proposed change, there would be a body called the Office of Congressional Complaints Review that would appear to have some of the features of the OCE, but it would not be able to accept anonymous information, instead it would be subject to the control of the ethics committee and its work would be mostly secret. The full House, with its Republican majority, was expected to rubber-stamp the plan on Tuesday.

There was an outcry from Democrats. "Ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress," said Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader. Many others in America chimed in.




What ultimately tipped the balance in favour of the challengers was the intervention of President-elect Trump, a billionaire businessman, who appears en route to his own ethical issues over the control of management of his businesses once he assumes office on January 20. He tweeted that the focus of his Republican colleagues should be on more important matters, like tax reforms and health care.

This issue has relevance to Jamaica. It is a reminder of this country's problem with corruption and the long-lingering project to overhaul its anti-corruption laws and oversight institutions.

Nearly eight out of 10 Jamaicans believe the country to be corrupt and a high level of suspicion, heading towards, or at nearly that level, pervades most national institutions - the legislature, the police, the civil service, etc. Despite slight gains recently, Jamaica hovers in mid-range of countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index.

Corruption is a deterrent to social order, investment and economic growth. When it has metastasised, as it has in Jamaica, its cure demands affirmative action, not to wait on organic developments. Which is what Jamaican governments have promised.

But a new law to establish a single anti-corruption agency, to replace the toothless, under-resourced several, meanders in Parliament. Donald Trump may have been cynical about the OCE, but we thank him nonetheless for his reminder.