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The Ethics Rubber Meets the Road

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CBS

Each party claims to be the one that's most concerned with ethics in Washington.

Democrats promised to "drain the [Republican] swamp." Republicans point to a host of Democratic ethics scandals since, including -- most recently -- charges against Democrats Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters.

So who's really serious about ethics? A great test case is on the horizon. Here's the background.

The longstanding House Ethics Committee is made up of members judging their own. They're often criticized for giving their colleagues a pass. So in 2007, Democrats freshly in control of the House, created an independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). The idea was to bring some independence to the ethics process. Republicans opposed creating the OCE, but they were in the minority so they lost.

Today, the OCE is made up of an even split of well-respected Democrats and Republicans: none currently serving in Congress. They don't have a lot of power. But they are allowed to thoroughly investigate cases against members of Congress and refer the ones with merit to the House Ethics Committee for possible charges. It hasn't quite turned out according to plan. Democrats are no fonder of the office they created than are Republicans.

More About the OCE: A Double Standard for House Ethics?

In eleven out of 12 cases against members of Congress that the independent OCE referred, the House Ethics Committee decided not to charge any member of Congress. Those let off the hook include Democrats, Republicans, blacks, whites, men and women. In other words: the Congressional insiders are almost universally thumbing their collective nose at the independent investigators. Some of those fingered by the OCE have said its investigators are unfair or sloppy. But supporters of the OCE, including taxpayer watchdog groups, say members of Congress simply don't like the oversight.

As you can imagine, an independent office that investigates members of Congress -- doesn't make a lot of friends in Congress. In the past year, both Democrats and Republicans have expressed interest in watering down OCE's power or eliminating it entirely. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has several members investigated by the OCE, has proposed legislation to water down the OCE. And it's all in Congress' control.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Now, incoming Republican House Speaker John Boehner is the key. Political analysts say he has long opposed OCE. Today, a host of right-wing and left-wing advocates joined together, appeared on Capitol Hill. They urged Boehner and Congress to save the OCE and increase its "pull."

Some of the groups making the pitch include: The League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Taxpayers for Common Sense, The National Taxpayers Union, Judicial Watch, Public Citizen, The Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Democracy 21 and U.S. PIRG. The Tea Party is also in on the act, expressing support for preserving OCE as well.

Boehner's spokesman says he hasn't made a decision yet regarding the future of the OCE.


Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News Investigative Correspondent based in Washington. You can read more of her posts in Hotsheet here.
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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.