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Despite fears agency could be crippled, House fills ethics posts

Advocates had warned about impact of new rule imposing term limits

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., accepts the gavel from Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., after McCarthy won the speakership on the 15th ballot on Jan. 7.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., accepts the gavel from Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., after McCarthy won the speakership on the 15th ballot on Jan. 7. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Even though ethics advocacy groups predicted House Republicans’ changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics could sideline the watchdog in the 118th Congress, they now say their worst fears appear unlikely to be realized. 

They credit House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York for swiftly filling Democratic slots on OCE’s board and say they’re now optimistic about the office’s ability to operate. Still, the state of congressional ethics enforcement in the current Congress remains somewhat uncertain.

Embattled New York GOP Rep. George Santos, who has been embroiled in an ethics and campaign finance scandal, has grabbed the headlines, but how Congress may police lower-profile potential ethics violations will offer more insight into the process. 

As they took over the chamber last month, House Republicans instituted term limits on OCE board members that disproportionately affected holdover Democrats on the panel. Republicans also said OCE had to make hiring decisions within the first 30 days.

“Jeffries responded with warp speed,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen, who focuses on congressional ethics, among other matters.

For now, outside ethics groups say they’re relieved after both Jeffries and Speaker Kevin McCarthy appointed, or reappointed, members to OCE’s board. Jeffries added former Democratic Reps. Mike Barnes of Maryland and Bill Luther of Minnesota as well as Lorraine Miller, a former House clerk. 

Holman and other ethics advocates said board vacancies had previously taken months to fill, so they did not believe it was likely. 

“Given how fast Jeffries appointed new board members, I am expecting the new board to also work fast,” Holman added. “It’s good news.”

Added Kedric Payne, a former OCE deputy chief counsel: “There is definitely a ray of light on the OCE right now.” Payne, who serves as vice president, general counsel and senior director of ethics from the Campaign Legal Center, said that “it looks as though the board will be up and running and will have a good team there to continue OCE’s work.”

Despite his initial concerns, Aaron Scherb, Common Cause’s senior director of legislative affairs, said that with Jeffries’ quick appointments, OCE would “now be back up at full speed for the 118th Congress.” 

The OCE changes aren’t the only ones affecting congressional ethics bodies this Congress. The separate House Ethics Committee, whose members were recently named, will also accept formal complaints from individuals and groups outside of Congress.  

Longtime ethics and campaign finance lawyer Ken Gross, who is now a counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, called the change a “real improvement,” though he noted that “the proof will be in the pudding, because just allowing a complaint doesn’t mean there will be action.”

Whereas OCE has the power to investigate ethical issues involving members, at most it can make recommendations to the committee for action. The committee has the power to sanction members, up to recommending a floor vote for expulsion.

Payne, the former OCE staff member, noted that allowing formal complaints from outside of Congress to House Ethics could offer the “public another avenue to get ethics rules enforced.” On the flip side, though, it could also be used as an opportunity to frustrate OCE’s investigations, he said, when both panels receive the same complaints, as is expected. 

For another view, longtime ethics lawyer Robert Walker wrote an update for his firm Wiley saying that the House Ethics panel has long been able to consider information from the public or the news media. Therefore, “the intent, purpose, and potential effect of this provision of the new House rules resolution are unclear,” he wrote.

Additionally, House Republicans’ rules package calls for McCarthy to establish a bipartisan task force to “conduct a comprehensive review of House ethics rules and regulations.” The speaker’s press office did not respond to a request for comment about the status of that task force. 

“I’m taking it just as a study group that’s going to evaluate the ethics rules, and not assume that it is an assault on the ethics rules, but we will see what happens,” Holman said.

McCarthy named former House and Senate staffer Paul Vinovich to be chair of the OCE, and reappointed former Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland and former House Clerk Karen Haas to the board.

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