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Watchdogs Want Stronger Congressional Ethics Office

Boehner and Pelosi both have said that the Office of Congressional Ethics is likely to stay. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Boehner and Pelosi both have said that the Office of Congressional Ethics is likely to stay. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Despite its small staff of nine and a slim operating budget of about $1.5 million, the Office of Congressional Ethics has managed to achieve tangible victories in the House, according to sources once skeptical the agency could accomplish its mission.  

Before its creation, the House Ethics Committee managed allegations of improper conduct by members and staff almost entirely on its own. In the first decade of the Ethics panel’s existence, only 10 disciplinary actions were issued. Half occurred from 2006 to 2008, during the time when a scandal surrounding notorious ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff led to nearly two dozen convictions or guilty pleas.  

Between OCE’s formation in 2009 and 2014, the House Ethics Committee issued 20 disciplinary actions with the help of the agency’s investigations.  

That success is outlined in Public Citizen’s report titled, “The Case for Independent Ethics Agencies .” It’s the product of an Ethics Working Group that included the Campaign Legal Center, congressional scholars Norman Ornstein, Thomas Mann and James Thurber, and groups including Common Cause and the National Taxpayers Union.  

To the relief of those advocates, OCE is likely here to stay.  

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both indicated that the scrappy office will survive when new rules are established in the 114th Congress. But neither leader has publicly committed to changes that outsiders say are necessary to fully investigate allegations of wrongdoing and misconduct by members of Congress.  

“Deafening silence,” Campaign Legal Center’s Meredith McGehee said Wednesday, describing the leaders’ responses during a roundtable held in cramped space on the sixth floor of the Longworth House Office Building.  

McGehee and other speakers gave credit to Pelosi’s team for her early commitment to renewing the office, and to both parties for putting in place strong leadership at OCE, but the advocates say there are still plenty of weaknesses to be corrected. Public Citizen and Campaign Legal Center were among the groups that stopped working with the bipartisan task force formed to study the creation of an ethics office, once they learned the agency would not have the power to subpoena testimony and documents.  

Language regarding OCE was added to Section X of House Rules in 2008. Many members of the ethics group rallied to OCE’s aid in late 2012 , amid serious questions about whether it would survive in the 113th Congress. Ornstein wrote an opinion piece for CQ Roll Call about why the office “must survive.”  

Craig Holman, legislative representative with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and author of the report, said he is not worried about OCE being in danger under current House leadership, but called the rules process a source of potential weakness. “If we do see a change in the leadership, I suspect this will become an issue once again,” he said.  

In addition to making OCE more of a permanent institution of Congress, the ethics working group still wants subpoena authority and asks the House Ethics Committee to be more transparent with “pink sheets” that clarify ethics rules for specific circumstances  and other guidance. They also say the Senate needs an equivalent independent ethics arm — a proposal that has failed to gain momentum in the chamber.  

Chances for further changes to the House process in the 114th Congress look slim.  

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith declined to comment on the subpoena power idea. “The OCE has been renewed in each of the last two Congresses and I have no information that will change in the next,” he told CQ Roll Call in an email.  

Pelosi also is “firmly committed” to the continuation of the OCE, according to spokesman Drew Hammill. “The creation of this body under the Democratic Majority, along with sweeping changes to House rules, remains critical to efforts to reform the way Washington works,” he said in an email. Hammill had no further comments on the other proposals.  


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