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GOP Transition Will Not Propose Ethics Office Change

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said Thursday he doesn’t “anticipate any change” to the Office of Congressional Ethics in the 112th Congress, as members of the House GOP transition team concluded it will not issue recommendations about the future of the fledgling office.

“As I’ve said from day one, it wasn’t on our list of activities,” Walden said at a press conference Thursday. “The only group that I’m aware of that has suggested doing away with the OCE is a proposal from the Congressional Black Caucus, so I don’t anticipate any change.”

House lawmakers created the OCE in 2008 in an attempt to increase transparency in the normally secretive ethics process and boost public confidence in the chamber’s ability to police its own Members.

The OCE reviews potential rules violations and refers matters to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Unlike the committee, the OCE includes no incumbent Members, although its eight-person board does include former lawmakers.

But the OCE, which has opened about 70 inquiries since it began investigating allegations in early 2009, has drawn the ire of some Members, who have sought to curtail the office’s powers to open and pursue investigations of lawmakers.

Prior to the November elections, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said a Republican majority would review the OCE, asserting there are questions about the office’s effectiveness. 

But a Boehner spokesman said earlier this month that no decisions have been made about the office.

Republican lawmakers opposed the OCE’s creation en masse in 2008, arguing that the House should improve its ethics committee rather than establish the new entity.

But Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the leader of the transition working group charged with reviewing House and Conference rules, said the House could still opt to make changes to the OCE.

“We are making no recommendations. That doesn’t mean nothing will change but we are making no recommendations,” Bishop said Thursday.

A wide-ranging coalition of government reform advocates has sought to pressure the incoming House GOP majority to preserve the office.

Thee advocacy groups argued at a press conference earlier this month that dismantling the office would weaken ethics enforcement on Capitol Hill, repeatedly raising the specter of disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who became the central figure in a federal public corruption investigation in 2006, when Republicans last controlled the House. 

“The only people that are grumbling are Members of Congress,” said U.S. PIRG’s Gary Kalman, who spoke at the Dec. 2 press conference along with officials from the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Democracy 21, Judicial Watch, League of Women Voters, National Taxpayers Union, Public Citizen and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

A House resolution establishing the OCE is included in the chamber’s internal rules. House Members could opt to eliminate those provisions when the rules are approved at the start of the 112th Congress.

But Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer noted that House lawmakers could also take other avenues to diminish the OCE’s abilities, including cutting the office’s funding.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.

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