A legislative ambush that some feared was intended against the independent Office of Congressional Ethics did not occur last week. And backers of the sometimes controversial watchdog now say they are more confident it will be sticking around to help police congressional behavior, after all.
“We’re very happy about that,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen on Thursday. His is one of a slew of good-government groups that in recent months have warned that House leaders might be preparing to pull the plug on future OCE investigations of members.
Language to reauthorize the office was contained in the House rules package for the new congressional session approved on Jan. 3. But more so than reauthorization, there had been worry over term limits facing the office’s board members —and over whether the House rules package would address that or ignore it.
The OCE is cochaired by former Reps. Porter Goss, R-Fla., and David Skaggs, D-Colo., and there are four other appointed members whose terms are expiring. OCE staff can’t launch new investigations and take other actions without board approval. And if there is no board, there can’t be board approval.
That prompted Public Citizen’s Holman and others from groups such as the Sunlight Foundation and Common Cause to begin publicly airing their concerns that OCE’s work could be scuttled in a sneaky, backdoor way if lawmakers chose at the start of this new Congress to simply let board members’ terms lapse and did nothing else.
But what did occur — whether or not their warnings actually played a role — was that language was added in the rules package adopted last week specifying that the board members may be reappointed to serve another term. Holman and others say they believe that signals the current board members will be reappointed by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and that OCE’s work will continue.
“I take this as meaning there will be no interruptions [in OCE activities] at all,” said Holman.
OCE has certainly had its detractors. The office was created in 2008 in response to complaints that the House Ethics Committee alone was not adequately policing fellow House members. The idea was for an independent office to provide preliminary, independent reviews of ethics accusations against members of Congress and to make recommendations about whether further investigation by the Ethics Committee was necessary.
The move was a result of Pelosi's promise to “drain the swamp” of unethical behavior after Democrats seized the majority in 2006. That pledge that stemmed from ethics scandals involving members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Boehner and other top GOP conference leaders were among those who tried unsuccessfully in 2008 to beat back legislation creating the ethics office.
But since its inception, the activities of the OCE's board and small group of lawyers has prompted public turf wars with the Ethics Committee itself.
And members of both political parties have complained about some of its investigations, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Such complaints have prompted even Pelosi to stop short of giving OCE her continued full support, expressing sympathy instead with some of her rank-and-file members’ concerns.
In 2011, Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., led an unsuccessful effort to slash 40 percent of OCE's $1.5 million annual budget. Watt had previously been a target of an OCE investigation that ultimately was dropped.
Current CBC chairman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio — also a detractor — had no immediate comment on Thursday. She had introduced a resolution in 2010 as part of an effort to place limits on the OCE's jurisdiction and to change some of its practices, such as prohibiting “premature” publication of its reports and findings against lawmakers.
There was no immediate comment on Thursday from Boehner’s office, including any indication of how soon board members might be formally reappointed.
Said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, “With the reauthorization last week, the House of Representatives will ensure that the OCE will continue its work. A further announcement is expected in the days ahead.”