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Posted at 01:25 PM ET, 07/22/2011

House defeats effort to slash ethics office funding

The House on Friday easily beat back an effort to slash funding for the Office of Congressional Ethics, as a majority from both parties teamed up to protect the controversial quasi-independent watchdog.

The chamber defeated an amendment to the legislative branch spending bill offered by Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) — who was previously the subject of an OCE investigation -- that would have cut the office’s $1.5 million budget for 2012 by 40 percent.

Watt’s measure failed on a 102-302 vote, with a handful of lawmakers changing their “yes” votes to ”no” once the wide margin of defeat became clear.

The OCE, which vets allegations against lawmakers and then decides whether they merit further action by the Ethics Committee, has been the subject of controversy since it was created in 2008.

At the time, some lawmakers contended that it was usurping authority that properly belonged to the House Ethics Committee, though the two bodies differ in that the OCE is allowed to accept and act on outside complaints, while the committee only takes up complaints initiated by lawmakers themselves.

In its three years in operation, OCE has been accused by some lawmakers of launching unjustified investigations and of unfairly publicizing details of its probes. The office has also feuded with the ethics committee, particularly at the staff level. The committee has accused the OCE of not following proper investigative procedures or giving members under investigation enough opportunity to defend themselves.

But OCE has been staunchly defended by government watchdog groups, which argue that the office has added a level of heightened scrutiny that the slow-moving Ethics committee could not. Despite some rumblings to the contrary late last year, no members of either party moved at the start of the 112th Congress, when new House rules were approved, to eliminate OCE or change its mandate.

During debate on the amendment Thursday, Watt presented a list of reasons why the funding cut was warranted.

“I believe there is a substantial bipartisan consensus,” Watt said, “one, that the responsibilities of the OCE are redundant and duplicative of the House Ethics Committee; two, that the OCE’s operations are substantially staff driven, and the staff has taken the OCE’s mission well beyond what was intended in the statute that created the entity; three, that the procedures of the OCE are unfair and sometimes abusive of the rights of members of the House; four, that a substantial part of the funds we spend on the OCE waste taxpayers’ money; and, five, that using those funds to reduce our debt and deficit would be a far better use.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) backed Watt’s position, saying OCE has “gone on witch hunts. They have taken pieces of information that came from political opposition on either side and embellished that into things.”

Watt and seven other House members were investigated by OCE in 2010 for holding campaign fundraising events within 48 hours of the House passing financial-industry reform legislation in 2009. The probe was eventually dropped with no action taken against Watt.

Without naming Watt, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) — who played a key role in creating OCE — suggested the office was being targeted out of revenge.

“This amendment, as far as I’m concerned, is merely a punishment because some members haven’t liked some of the things the OCE has done,” Capuano said.

He added that he would be open to reforming the way OCE operates, but “a cut of this level is simply a draconian measure to punish them for what they have done as opposed to try to improve what they do in the future.”

Watt denied having any personal motivation.

“This is not retaliation,” he said. “This is a better use of the money than the OCE is making of it.”

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