Nonprofit watchdog groups from across the political spectrum are calling on House leaders to reauthorize the Office of Congressional Ethics when the 115th Congress convenes in January.
The independent office, which screens ethics allegations and refers serious cases to the House Ethics Committee, has conducted dozens of ethics probes of House lawmakers since its inception in 2008. But, the office has faced uncertain prospects and criticism, especially from lawmakers it has investigated.
The OCE is headed by a bipartisan board of directors that, unlike the Ethics Committee, includes no current members of Congress.
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.).
Supporters said they are especially concerned this year about the future of the OCE because House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) views regarding the ethics office are largely unknown. Former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Democratic 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.
“The House has consistently re-authorized OCE with little dispute and strong bipartisan support,” said a Dec. 21 letter from the 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, but we wanted to call your attention to the matter.”
The letter was signed by 13 groups and individual ethics experts, ranging from the liberal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) to the conservative group Judicial Watch.
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 is has been too aggressive in conducting probes of lawmakers and congressional staff.
Among its critics was Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who offered an amendment last June to a fiscal 2017 legislative branch appropriations bill (H.R. 5325) seeking to eliminate a proposed budget increase of $190,000 for the OCE. Pearce had complained that one of his staffers was treated unfairly by OCE investigators, who questioned the aide in an undisclosed matter that ultimately was dismissed.
Only cases referred the House Ethics Committee are publicly revealed.
The OCE has a budget of about $1 million. Pearce’s amendment to deny it a funding increase was defeated in a House floor vote of 137-270.
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