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Watt Seeks to Slash Outside Ethics Office Budget

Updated: 5:45 p.m.

Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) is poised to offer an amendment to the legislative branch appropriations bill that would cut the funding of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics by 40 percent.

The amendment, which could be offered as early as Friday, would gut $619,200 from the OCE’s $1.5 million budget.

In a letter to colleagues Thursday, Watt called the OCE “redundant and duplicative of the House Ethics Committee” and said its procedures are “unfair and abusive of the rights of Members of the House.”

“I believe that members of Congress deserve to be treated fairly as do the constituents we represent,” Watt wrote. “I, therefore, encourage you to support this amendment to return some measure of fairness to our institution.”

The push to cripple the OCE comes just one year after Watt was the subject of an investigation into an amendment to the regulatory reform bill that he introduced and later withdrew after a fundraising event. Watt was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

“I was advised recently that the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) has initiated an investigation of several contributions to my campaign committee,” Watt said in a statement last June. “It’s unfortunate that this has been leaked to the press and that could leave the impression that there has been some impropriety.”

The amendment may get some bipartisan support. Rep. Steve King said the OCE was set up to be a witch-hunting organization.

“That’d be one time I’d vote with the Congressional Black Caucus. I like justice and we’re not getting it from OCE,” the Iowa Republican said. “They take their direction from political activist organizations that have an ax to grind. And then the OCE goes in and does an investigation and they have leaks that come out of there and these leaks then hurt people politically without justification.”

But one senior Democratic appropriator said that although the amendment might get a few votes from both sides of the aisle, it “will not pass.”

A group of government watchdog organizations, which included the Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S PIRG, was circulating a letter to all House offices on Thursday urging them to vote against the Watt amendment.

“The recent dysfunctional performance by the House Ethics Committee has only served to reinforce the critically important role being played by the OCE in the House ethics enforcement process,” the letter said. “There is absolutely no basis for reducing OCE’s funding.”

Ethics experts have called for renewed investment in the OCE following a House Ethics Committee announcement on Wednesday that it has hired an outside counsel to investigate the conduct of committee Members and staffers in a probe into Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

The OCE is a fact-finding body that investigates alleged wrongdoing within the House and refers its findings to the Ethics Committee for further action.

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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