Ohio Tea Party splits with Boehner on ethics

Incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could be headed toward a conflict with his home-state Tea Party over the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

The Ohio Liberty Council, the main umbrella organization for 58 Tea Party groups in the state, supports efforts to strengthen the OCE and is warning House GOP leaders that any attempt to weaken it will upset Tea Party activists.

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“It they move in the opposite direction of transparency that this office provides, I think we will be very upset about that,” said Chris Littleton, president of the Ohio Liberty Council and the Cincinnati Tea Party. “Symbolically, it’s a huge problem for them … they should be as transparent as they can be. Any opposition to that would be inappropriate on their part.”

Tea Party groups in Ohio first became aware of the OCE after the fiscally conservative group Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) made strengthening the office a priority in its transparency and reform agenda for the 112th Congress. Other planks in TCS’s platform include passing budget bills before the beginning of the fiscal year, imposing earmark reforms and abiding by pay-as-you-go, or pay-go, enforcements.

House Republican leaders have supported many of TCS’s reform priorities in their own transparency agenda unveiled since the election. But Boehner has long opposed the ethics office, and many political observers think he will seek to dismantle or seriously weaken it with Republicans in the majority.

The grassroots Tea Party movement helped to re-energize the Republican Party during the midterm election and deliver the GOP majority. Boehner is riding to power on this wave of enthusiasm, although many in the movement view him as part of the GOP establishment.

When asked whether Boehner will heed the call to strengthen, not shutter, the OCE, his spokesman, Michael Steel, said the issue is still up in the air.

“We haven’t made a decision with regard to the OCE,” he said in an e-mail. “As you know, the only group of members publicly calling for it to be shut down at this point are Democrats.”

A spokesman for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the incoming majority leader, echoed Steel’s statements.

Many arriving Republican freshmen campaigned on accountability and transparency, and House GOP leaders have responded by promoting a transparency initiative that includes posting all bills to the Web 72 hours before they are voted on and bringing cameras into House Rules Committee hearings.

Outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pushed through legislation creating the OCE as a new independent layer of ethics scrutiny in 2008, strong-arming many in her party who feared giving an outside body the power to police members’ activities.

All Republican leaders vigorously opposed the OCE’s creation and tried to defeat the measure in a series of parliamentary tactics Democrats beat back in March of 2008. The bill passed 207-206 after Democratic leaders pressed several reluctant members to vote in favor.

Government watchdog groups strongly support the OCE, which has investigated more than 60 cases and referred a dozen to the House ethics committee for further review. The extent and level of ethics scrutiny the OCE has brought is unprecedented in the House, and several targets of the probes, many of them in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and other critics on both sides of the aisle have complained that Pelosi created an entity that has overreached and is out of control.

CBC members have introduced legislation that would curtail the powers of the OCE, and watchdog groups have roundly condemned the proposed modifications.

The ethics office was not set up as a permanent fixture of the House and requires reauthorization at the beginning of each Congress, which will likely be included in a House rules package. Watchdogs fear that Republicans could try to include provisions in the rules package that supercede or gut the OCE in order to obscure or deflect attention from the underlying attempt to weaken the office.

“I’m glad to hear that they don’t want to get rid of it right away,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, referring the comments from Boehner’s spokesman. “I think the cost of that would be pretty high politically.”