Updated at 8:00 a.m. on November 15.
On the surface, presumptive House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, makes a convincing case that change is coming to Washington.
Boehner has invited reform-minded freshmen to join his majority transition team, and he has drawn up an impressive laundry list of pending House reforms: Earmarks are out; transparency is in; bills will be crafted in the open and publicly posted well before votes. As Boehner put it in a YouTube video touting the GOP's plans, "Now more than ever, citizens want to participate in government and hold their leaders accountable."
But behind closed doors, Boehner’s agenda clashes head-on with the populist rhetoric of many newly elected Republican House members. Even as they outline institutional reforms, GOP leaders are gearing up to kill the fledgling Office of Congressional Ethics, which helps police ethics complaints. They are handpicking top aides, many of them old K Street hands, to staff key committees and Capitol Hill offices. Some tea party activists grouse that lobbyists and insiders are trying to "co-opt" the GOP freshmen.
Boehner "has clearly got a big problem on his hands," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "He’s an establishment, country-club Republican trying to embrace the tea party folks without making any of the changes they require. It’s a delicate balance."
Not that the House Republican reform agenda lacks substance. Like the GOP class of '94, which freshened up the House rules after a similar sweep to power, the incoming Republican leadership has spelled out meaningful operational improvements. These include ending House earmarks; posting bills publicly for three days before votes; writing bills in committee, not behind closed doors; and bringing video cameras into the House Rules Committee.
"What we’re pledging to do is make the process more transparent, so people can see how bills are being written," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for the majority transition office. GOP leaders are "seeking out the freshmen for their input," he added, "because they were sent here to change Washington and shake up the way things work."
Some of these proposals, as first outlined in the Republicans' "Pledge to America," are "refreshing," acknowledged Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. But he is skeptical of the reform plans, Ornstein said at a recent briefing hosted by Common Cause, largely because party leaders have "made it very clear" that they plan to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics. "There is no pledge here to deal with ethics issues in a positive way, period," he said.
Reform advocates plan a Capitol Hill press conference this week to call on Boehner and his colleagues not to shut down the OCE, but few expect it to stay open. Boehner and most of the other House Republicans voted against the OCE's creation two years ago. Anticipating its closure, the office's staff director and chief counsel, Leo Wise, has announced that he is leaving for a job with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland.
Under Wise, the OCE has looked into 69 complaints and recommended action on 13 of them. It has operated as an inspector general of sorts and has won praise for reviving the House's notoriously moribund and secretive ethics process. Among others cases, the office brought to light allegations of wrongdoing by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who is now on trial in the House on charges related to fundraising, financial-disclosure, and tax irregularities.
Asked about the OCE, Buck said that Boehner will "take a look at current ethics rules" but that ethics "has really not been the focus of our transition efforts." GOP leaders probably won't vote publicly to kill the OCE but will simply quietly defund it next year, said John Wonderlich, policy director of the Sunlight Foundation. The foundation has been working with GOP transition leaders on their transparency agenda and has lobbied for the OCE’s preservation.
"The kind of support that brought the Republicans back to power is somewhat anti-Washington; it's somewhat anti-establishment," Wonderlich said. "It's a somewhat populist tone that Speaker Boehner is going to have to strike to deal with this new crop of freshman members.”
That could be a tough balancing act, as the recent GOP tug-of-war over earmarks illustrates. The Tea Party Patriots recently sent out a memo complaining bitterly that a conservative group known as the Claremont Institute had scheduled a freshman orientation "coordinated by lobbyists and campaign consultants," for the same day and at the same time that tea party organizers had planned to hold a similar orientation with Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz.
"D.C. insiders, the RNC, and lobbyists are already trying to push the tea party aside and co-opt the incoming congressmen," the memo charged.