Watchdogs warn House ethics process is at risk

December 12, 2012

(Joshua Roberts – BLOOMBERG)

Government watchdogs are warning that the independent office responsible for overseeing ethics investigations of House lawmakers runs the risk of becoming a toothless entity if leaders fail to appoint new board members in the closing weeks of the year.

The independent Office of Congressional Ethics was established in 2008 to serve as a clearinghouse for ethics complaints against lawmakers. The OCE has launched 101 cases and referred 37 to the 10-member House Ethics Committee for further review and possible referral to the Justice Department.

When he took control of the House, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) kept the OCE intact despite voting against its creation in 2008. In the years since, some members of both parties have sought to shutter the OCE or significantly curtail its budget.

The OCE is co-chaired by former Reps. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) and David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and four other appointed members whose terms are expiring. None of the board members are eligible for new terms, meaning Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) must tap new people to oversee the OCE.

Despite weeks of inquiries from independent “good government” groups and reporters, Boehner’s office hasn’t said when it plans to appoint new board members.

In an e-mail, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel would only say, “The Speaker intends to retain the Office of Congressional Ethics for the 113th Congress and to appoint an Ethics chair in a timely fashion.”

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, was equally coy, saying that “House Democrats are firmly committed to the continuation of the OCE and replacements will be named at the appropriate time.”

In recent months, initial case work by the OCE has led the ethics panel to clear Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) of long-simmering charges regarding financial improprieties and to launch a new probe into Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.).

In hopes of pressuring Boehner and Pelosi to move faster, at least nine government watchdog groups plan to rally Wednesday on Capitol Hill, including the League of Women Voters, Judicial Watch, the Sunlight Foundation, Common Cause and Public Citizen.

Public Citizen’s Craig Holman has been pushing to ensure new OCE board members for months, so far with little success.

“The House Ethics Committee has generated more than three times the number of disciplinary actions in the short four years that OCE has been around than in the entire previous decade,” Holman said in an e-mail. He credited the OCE with shedding more light on an historically cloistered ethics process.

“Previously, the ethics process in both chambers of Congress had been run entirely by Members of Congress themselves and the investigations and formal actions of the ethics committees generally remained out of the public domain,” Holman said in his e-mail. The secrecy led to charges that Congress was failing to properly police itself — charges perhaps best demonstrated in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, he said.

Dale Eisman, a senior researcher with Common Cause, said government watchdogs most appreciate OCE’s political independence. “Both political parties have complained about some of its investigations, but neither has seriously suggested that it is in any way partisan,” Eisman said.

This item has been updated since its original publication.

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Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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Ed O'Keefe · December 12, 2012