House GOP leaders dodge questions on the future of ethics office

House Republican leaders won’t say whether they will scrap an ethics office if they regain the majority this fall.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), established by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2008, has attracted criticism from Republicans and Democrats during the last couple of years. Most GOP lawmakers voted against the creation of the OCE, and many political observers believe the OCE will be disbanded should Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) become Speaker next year.

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Pressed for comment, GOP leadership aides declined to directly answer the OCE question, presumably seeking to avoid politically damaging headlines about how Republicans want to strip away a new layer of ethics scrutiny. House Republican leaders have cited ethics as a key reason why they should be calling the shots in the lower chamber, repeatedly touting the ethics controversies surrounding Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).

Government watchdog groups strongly support the OCE, which has investigated 60 cases and referred a dozen to the House ethics committee for further review. The ethics office was not set up as a permanent fixture of the House, requiring a reauthorization at the beginning of each Congress.

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 have complained that Pelosi created an entity that is overreaching and out of control.

All GOP leaders vigorously opposed the OCE’s creation and tried to defeat the measure establishing it with a series of parliamentary tactics Democrats beat back in March of 2008. The bill passed 207-206, without the support of Rangel or Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who both face ethics trials this fall. Waters voted no while Rangel did not vote.

Boehner’s spokesman tried to change the topic when asked whether his boss would keep the OCE if Boehner has the Speaker’s gavel in 2011.

“We are listening to the American people, who are focused on jobs and spending,” said Michael Steel. “This sort of hypothetical hasn’t come up.”

Minority Whip Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) spokesman responded similarly.

“Eric is focused on cutting spending and bringing an end to the cloud of uncertainty that continues to hang over job creators, families, and investors so that people can get back to work,” said Brad Dayspring.

“Additionally, he’s directed his energy toward helping members and candidates secure the resources needed to ensure a GOP majority in November. That hypothetical just hasn’t come up.”

Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) did not respond to a request for comment.

While Boehner’s and Cantor’s offices say they are focusing on the economy, the issue of ethics has been a staple of their talking points this year.

Boehner cited what was then the party line on Fox News Sunday in early August: “Nancy Pelosi said four years ago that it was time to drain the swamp…But the fact is, she has not kept her promise. The swamp is alive and well.”

Just days later, though, Boehner quickly tamped down the ethics rhetoric, telling a local TV station in Kentucky that ethics troubles won’t have a “big impact on the election.”

Boehner has reportedly urged a handful of married House Republican members to stop partying with female lobbyists. Lawmakers who Boehner allegedly scolded have disputed the New York Post’s account, which ran this summer.

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During the debate that preceded the creation of the OCE in March of 2008, Boehner was clear about his opposition.

“Now, if the bipartisan process that we have called the ethics committee doesn’t work, why would we think that this bipartisan outside ethics committee is going to work any better?” he asked.

A few moments later, Boehner summed up the high stakes and the political difficulty of getting rid of an ethics office once it’s established.

“What we’re about to undertake here is something that will never be undone, if we do it. And if we do it wrong, which I believe it is being done wrong, it will be something that this institution and its members will live with for a long, long time to come,” he said.

CBC members have introduced legislation that would curtail the powers of the OCE, but those proposed modifications were swiftly lambasted by watchdog groups, including Democracy 21 and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington.

Republicans and Democrats in recent weeks have openly ripped the OCE’s investigative tactics amid an investigation into the fundraising activities of a bipartisan group of eight members during the Wall Street reform debate.

Last week, the OCE recommended that the House ethics committee further review Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.), Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.) for fundraisers they held in the days leading up to the House financial reform vote last December. The OCE recommended dismissal of the probes against the five other members.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), one of the lawmakers whose case was dismissed, expressed outrage about how he was treated during the probe.

Pelosi has indicated a willingness to change the OCE’s rules. She met with frustrated CBC members in May and privately signaled that she would consider changes to some ethics rules at the beginning of the next Congress.

Watchdogs are now playing defense. Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, sent a letter to supporters Tuesday, extolling the OCE’s virtues.

“Since it started operating in 2008, the OCE has been working hard to hold members accountable for their actions,” she stated. “Because of this, House members on both sides of the aisle are aiming to greatly reduce the OCE’s authority next Congress.”

OCE spokesman Jon Steinman said, “I have no comment on who will be in charge next year. What matters to me is that the OCE has been doing its job. Regardless of who is in charge, I think the House and the American public are better served by us being able to continue doing our job.”