Two and a half years after the House set up a quasi-independent panel to investigate ethics abuses, the Office of Congressional Ethics appears poised to close its doors.
A Republican House takeover would almost certainly spell doom for the OCE, which vets ethics complaints and refers those worth investigating to the full Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Republicans strongly opposed the OCE's establishment to begin with, and GOP leaders now say the office deserves a second look.
But the OCE's days look numbered even if Democrats manage to retain control of the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., barely won approval for the watchdog panel in 2008, and complaints from lawmakers have been growing louder ever since. While the House ethics committee has brushed off most of the OCE's recommendations, the outside panel's aggressive investigations into earmarks, fundraising and travel abuses have roiled both Capitol Hill and K Street.
Critics say the OCE has promoted itself too aggressively, failed to control media leaks and put lawmakers in a tough spot.
"I think they will be severely curtailed or they will go away next cycle, regardless of who takes the majority, because they've done more harm than good," said a senior GOP House aide.
Neither party wants to go on record attacking House ethics investigators, of course. Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has even tried to make political hay out of OCE-prompted investigations targeting House Democrats Charles Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California. Boehner told ABC that Pelosi's promise to "drain the swamp" is "the most glaring promise that she's broken."
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have become ever bolder about publicly assailing the OCE. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, collected 19 signatures this summer on a resolution that would strip the OCE of many of its powers and bar it from going public with its findings. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., having recently learned that the OCE was dismissing fundraising allegations against him, blasted it for prematurely "punishing members in the press."
Lucas' fellow Oklahoman Dan Boren (D) told the Tulsa World last week that the OCE "has not improved the ethics process." He added: "They have embarked on some investigations without merit and have done so publicly in a way that has hurt members who have done nothing wrong."
Sensing trouble, reform advocates have launched a pre-emptive strike to head off an OCE shutdown. In a letter to Boehner and Pelosi last fall, a half-dozen good-government organizations hailed the transparency the OCE has brought to the ethics process, which historically saw complaints disappear into a "black hole." Run by a bipartisan, eight-member board and a 10-member staff led by a former Justice Department trial attorney, the OCE has received glowing press coverage.
Closing the OCE "would be a fundamental mistake on the part of the House," said Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. She said reform advocates will "remain vigilant" in their bid to defend the OCE, which has opened 44 investigations this year alone.
But critics say the OCE has promoted itself too aggressively, failed to control media leaks and put lawmakers in a tough spot by announcing investigations without giving members details on what they did wrong. Some lawmakers were outraged in May when the OCE referred evidence it collected while investigating earmarks abuses by the now-defunct lobbying firm the PMA Group to the Justice Department.
More recently, the OCE caused a stir with a sweeping probe involving more than a half-dozen lawmakers who collected campaign contributions from Wall Street donors on the eve of the House's vote on financial services legislation. The OCE cleared most of the members, but it referred three -- Reps. John Campbell, R-Calif., Tom Price, R-Ga., and Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y. -- to the full ethics panel for further investigation. All three have denied any wrongdoing.
"If holding a general fundraiser while Congress was in session voting on legislation that went through one of my committees is in violation of House ethics rules, then that is a broad new limitation on members' fundraising activities," said Lucas, an initial target who was exonerated, in his statement blasting the OCE.
"This inquiry is interesting in that it raises issues that have never been raised before in a significant way," said Kenneth A. Gross, partner in political law at Skadden. "This definitely takes it to the next level in sort of a broad-scale inquiry involving several members based on timing and contributions." The OCE "could be on the chopping block" in the next Congress, he added.
The Wall Street probe has raised questions both on and off Capitol Hill, concurred Brian Svoboda, a partner in the political law group of Perkins Coie: "Are they doing what Congress meant them to do? Are they doing their job well? Are they doing it carefully?"
OCE spokesman Jon Steinman declined to comment on specific investigations, citing ethics rules. But he said: "The OCE is doing the job the House assigned it, and we think doing it professionally."
Watchdog groups and editorial writers almost universally agree. But House members from both parties are irate. That puts the OCE in serious jeopardy come January, regardless of who wins this fall.