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Despite critics, Hill ethics office likely to survive

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) acknowledges that he has made mistakes but insists that he is not corrupt. The House voted Thursday to censure the congressman.
By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 11:16 PM

In the 33 months since it was formed, the Office of Congressional Ethics has been called unfair, unreasonable and out of control. It has clashed with the House ethics committee and made enemies in both parties.

Yet the OCE - the quasi-independent body charged with vetting allegations against lawmakers and forwarding them to the full ethics panel - is nearly certain to live to see its third birthday.

Despite some media reports to the contrary, several Republican lawmakers and aides inside and outside of the party leadership said there are no plans afoot to kill or significantly weaken the OCE.

Officially, no decisions have been made on this or any other potential House rules changes for the 112th Congress, but knowledgeable Republicans said privately they expected the office would survive intact.

The reasons are partly political, and partly practical.

With a full slate of decisions to make on revising the chamber's budget, schedule and a host of other internal matters, GOP leaders simply aren't giving much thought to changing the OCE.

"I haven't heard any conversations about that," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who will become majority whip in January.

McCarthy said it made sense to "always reassess" the way the ethics process works, but gave no indication a big revision was in the offing next month.

The theory that Republicans are plotting to kill the OCE may stem from the fact that the majority of GOP lawmakers - and all of the party's top leaders - voted against the office's creation in March 2008.

But now that the office exists, and Republicans recaptured the House with a reform-oriented message, they're not eager to start cutting back on oversight when the cases of censured Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is awaiting trial by the ethics committee, have cast a fresh spotlight on Capitol misdeeds.

"I didn't think the office should be created in the first place," said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the former chairman of the ethics committee, but at this point "probably the reasonable thing to do is work with" the OCE rather than abolish it.

Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), a former member of the ethics panel, formally known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, suggested that "there are those who would like Republicans to kill" the OCE, and that Democrats were laying "a delicious trap" for the GOP and incoming House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio).

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