Office of Congressional Ethics Set for Renewal

By Kenneth P. Doyle

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent investigatory unit that screens ethics allegations against House lawmakers and has faced controversy in the past, is set to be reauthorized when the new Congress convenes in January.

A draft of new House rules for the 115th Congress contains language renewing the OCE and making some changes to its operation. An explanation of the new rules did not elaborate on reasons for renewing the office, which has been criticized by some lawmakers targeted in ethics probes but has been praised by liberal and conservative watchdog groups.

The explanation said the new rules provision reauthorizing the ethics office “clarifies that term limits do not apply” to OCE board members. Also modified by the provision is the appointment process for OCE board members, which would require “consultation” but not “concurrence” between Republican and Democratic House leaders.

Support From Ryan Key

Meredith McGehee, policy chief for the nonprofit Issue One, which supports the OCE, expressed cautious optimism Dec. 29 that the ethics office would be able to continue functioning in the new Congress. She noted that there was some uncertainty about this because House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hasn’t said specifically whether he supports the OCE and its mission of independently reviewing ethics matters and referring serious cases to the House Ethics Committee.

A spokesman for Ryan, Brendan Buck, noted in a Dec. 29 email to Bloomberg BNA that reauthorization of the OCE was included in the package of new House rules, but he didn’t comment further.

Nonprofit watchdog groups from across the political spectrum had called on House leaders to reauthorize the OCE when the new Congress convenes. Supporters said they were especially concerned this year because Ryan’s views on the OCE were largely unknown. Former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) previously supported reauthorizing the OCE in each new Congress when the issue arose; the forthcoming Congress will be Ryan’s first to hold the gavel at the outset.

Watchdog Groups Back OCE

Recent investigations conducted by the OCE included those of Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), both of whom have allegedly used campaign money for personal expenses. The cases were referred to the House Ethics Committee for further action.

Other OCE probes referred to the committee and revealed this year included allegations of improper staff payments by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and alleged conflicts of interest between official duties and business ventures by Reps. Roger Williams (R-Texas) and Alan Grayson (D-Fla.).

“The House has consistently re-authorized OCE with little dispute and strong bipartisan support,” said a Dec. 21 letter from watchdog groups to Ryan and Pelosi. “Our organizations fully expect that the House will again re-authorize the agency for the next session and appoint a full board.”

The letter was signed by 13 groups and individual ethics experts, ranging from the liberal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to the conservative group Judicial Watch.

Board Has Ex-Lawmakers, Experts

Congress established the OCE in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal of the last decade. While watchdog groups that support tough ethics enforcement have praised the agency, some House members have grumbled that it has been too aggressive in conducting probes of lawmakers and congressional staff.

The bipartisan board of directors heading the OCE includes former lawmakers and ethics experts but, unlike the Ethics Committee, has no current members of Congress. The board must vote on opening investigations by the nine-person OCE staff and referring matters to the Ethics Committee.

The board is supposed to have eight members but has had only seven since its original Republican co-chairman, former Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), left earlier this year and joined a private law practice. Former Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) has served as the acting Republican co-chairwoman since Goss’s departure. Former Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) has served as the Democratic co-chairman of OCE since its inception in 2008.

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