The incoming House Republican majority took a positive step Wednesday by resisting calls to get rid of the Office of Congressional Ethics.
There has been grumbling in both parties that the OCE should be discontinued. If that were to happen, opponents argued, the logical time would be when Republicans take over control of the House in early January.
But the discontent over the OCE is a tribute to its effectiveness, and a good reason to keep the office.
Prior to the OCE's creation under Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), the House ethics committee was the picture of partisan gridlock. The panel had become incapable of policing House lawmakers on possible ethics violations.
Even during the Jack Abramoff GOP lobbying scandal in 2005-2006 and the bribery arrest of Rep. William Jefferson (D., La.), the ethics committee twiddled its thumbs.
Its credibility was in tatters.
For a decade, both parties essentially had worked out a truce in which neither side brought forward ethics complaints against the other. In response to a public outcry, the House created the OCE in 2008.
This independent office brings transparency to the ethics process and helps to ensure that the ethics committee reviews alleged violations. By referring potential cases to the ethics committee, it also puts needed pressure on the panel simply to do its work.
Without such prodding, it's highly doubtful that the committee would have acted upon cases such as that of Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D., N.Y.), who was found guilty of financial misconduct this fall. The House censured Rangel, the former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which is one step below expulsion.
Some lawmakers have argued that the OCE's role is unfair in cases where a complaint is publicized but later found to be without merit. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D., Ohio) proposed a resolution that would prevent the ethics committee from issuing any public statement in cases where the OCE recommends that a complaint be dismissed. Currently, the committee has discretion on whether to release information in such cases.
But even when a complaint isn't upheld, the information about such cases provides the public with an important insight into how Congress works. Earmarks as favors for campaign contributions and lawmakers' all-expenses-paid trips to posh resorts should not be shielded from public view.