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Office of Congressional Ethics Avoids Deep Cuts

The House defeated a proposal Friday to slash the funding of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, but Members who have been the subject of past investigations and those who sit on the House Ethics Committee signaled their dissatisfaction with the office.

It is unlikely to be the last effort to defund the office.

Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), who was the subject of an OCE inquiry last year and was later cleared, offered an amendment to the legislative branch appropriations bill to cut funding for the OCE by 40 percent.

Though the Watt amendment was defeated Friday by a 102-302 vote, it gained the support of at least 11 Members whom the OCE had investigated. Four Members who currently sit on the committee — including ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and former Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) — voted “present.”

Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Tom Price (R-Ga.), Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) were among the 102 Members who voted to cut the OCE’s budget by $619,200. At some point, each has been probed by the OCE, though none has been charged with wrongdoing. More lawmakers have been the subject of OCE investigations whose names have not been released publicly.

The OCE is a fact-finding body staffed by an eight-member board that is chosen by the Majority and Minority Leaders, and it investigates allegations of ethical violations in Congress. It refers its findings to the House Ethics Committee, which can choose to dismiss the matter or punish the individual in question. From the time the OCE was established by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2008, the two bodies have frequently clashed over the OCE’s interpretation of House ethics rules.

Government watchdog groups decried Watt’s effort to derail the OCE just days after the Ethics Committee announced it had hired a special counsel to investigate the actions of its own members and staffers during a probe into Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

“Currently, the House Ethics Committee itself, made up of an equal number of Republican and Democratic members, is under investigation for a series of leaks, allegations of unprofessional conduct, and partisan bickering,” Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center said after the Watt vote. “With the meltdown at the Ethics Committee, now is the time to look at strengthening the OCE, not weakening it.”

Melanie Sloan, executive director of  Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, chalked up the failure of the Watt amendment to bad timing.

“Most Members would like to see it go down, but it’s a matter of politics that keeps it alive,” Sloan said. “No one wants to be seen as the one killing the ethics office at a time when the Ethics Committee is under investigation.”

The tally at one point reached as high as 121 votes in favor of the Watt amendment, but as it became clear the measure would not pass, Members began switching their votes to “nay.” It was not immediately clear which Members made the change.

Sloan said she expects there will be further attempts to weaken the OCE’s role in the ethics process.

Just minutes after the amendment failed, Rep. Steve King told Roll Call that he had spoken with Watt on the floor about more ways to curb the OCE’s work, describing the office as rife with leaks that damage Members politically.

“We’ve agreed to talk about it and try to move forward, and I think we should,” the Iowa Republican said. “I hope we can do a Rules package [amendment] that zeroes it all out. The Members, if they’re going to put up one vote, they would put up a vote to zero it out. Maybe they just didn’t want to put up a vote that didn’t get rid of it for fear the 60 percent would target them.”

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