The House voted Friday to spare the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) from a 40 percent budget cut.
Members voted 102-302 against the cut, which came in the form of an amendment from Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to the 2012 Legislative Branch Appropriations Act. The office was established in 2008 by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The vote split Republicans more than it divided Democrats. Republicans voted 73-156 against the amendment; many likely saw it as a chance to kill spending, while others defended an office that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has decided to maintain.
The amendment would have cut 40 percent of the OCE's budget, or $619,000. The bill provides $1.5 million in funds for the office.
In Thursday night debate on the amendment, Watt argued that the OCE duplicates work done by the House Ethics Committee, and that the work of the office is "staff-driven," and often "unfair and sometimes abusive" to members of the House. Watt said the OCE needs to be judged as harshly as other federal agencies in light of the looming fiscal crisis.
"Using those criteria, my amendment proposes to eliminate duplication, demand accountability and adherence to the purposes for which the agency was created, demand fair due process treatment for members of Congress as we would for other employees in both the private and public sectors, and force us to make a choice about how best to use our over $600,000 of taxpayer funds," Watt said.
Watt himself was under investigation by the OCE in the 111th Congress, and members of both parties have taken issue with the OCE. But many have been reluctant to complain about the office due to the obvious political sensitivity of calling for an end to the office that polices members of Congress. Boehner was expected to cut the office once he became Speaker, but he allowed it to continue.
On Thursday night, only Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) spoke in favor of Watt's language.
"The OCE has crossed the line over and over and over again," King said. "They've gone on witch hunts. They've taken pieces of information that came from political opposition on either side, and embellished that into things."
But the only two Democrats who spoke Thursday night spoke against Watt's proposal. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, said he would oppose it, and Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) spoke at length against it.
Capuano argued that gutting the office would give the appearance that Congress is not policing itself as much as it could, and cautioned members against thinking that slashing its budget would change the office much.
"And you'll be perceived, this House will be perceived, by the general public for what it is … simply an attempt to roll back our progress on policing our own activities," he said.
Capuano argued that complaints about the OCE could easily be addressed through a change in House rules, and encouraged members to explore that option. He also argued that Watt's language amounts to "payback," a charge Watt rejected.
"This is not retaliation," Watt said. "This is a better use of the money than the OCE is making of it. There is an undercurrent in this House. Everybody knows that the OCE processes have been unfair, undemocratic, and they have singled people out. It should stop, and we should stand up and say that it should stop."
Watchdog group The Campaign Legal Center reacted swiftly to the vote, calling the near one-third support of the House on the measure “a sad commentary.”
“The 102 members who supported the amendment offered by Rep. Watt to gut the funding of the OCE have sent a signal to the American people that they see themselves as insulated against any credible questioning of their ethical behavior,” wrote policy director Meredith McGehee in a statement Friday.
“It is not surprising that those members who have been the subject of an investigation are unhappy,” she added. “The OCE has conducted itself in a professional manner, with almost every public action it has taken, including recommendations for further ethics investigations of both Republicans and Democrats . . . [it] should be strengthened, not weakened.”
This story was updated at 1:09 p.m.
Debbie Siegelbaum contributed to this story.