Watchdogs team up with Tea Party to defend ethics office from calls to close

Watchdog groups are tapping into the Tea Party’s grassroots power in an attempt to preserve stronger ethics rules in Congress.

Three influential taxpayer groups have joined forces with watchdogs to pressure incoming House GOP leaders not to weaken or shutter an independent ethics office.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, the National Taxpayers Union and Judicial Watch, three groups that usually back Republicans on fiscal issues, are teaming up with several watchdog groups to argue that strong congressional ethics is not a partisan issue.

The watchdogs include: the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, U.S. PIRG and Public Citizen.

The groups will hold a press conference Thursday morning, announcing their joint push to save the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a relatively new entity made up mostly of former members of Congress that investigates members and makes recommendations to the full ethics committee for further action.

The timing is particularly powerful coming as it the same day Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) faces a censure vote on the House floor for 11 counts of violating ethics rules.

The eclectic alliance comes after the Ohio Liberty Council, the main umbrella organization for 58 Tea Party groups in the state, publicly backed efforts to strengthen the OCE. Two weeks ago its president told The Hill that any attempt by House GOP leaders to weaken the OCE would upset Tea Party activists.

“If 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, rules.

House Republican leaders have supported many of TCS’s reform priorities in their own transparency agenda unveiled since the election. But incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) 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, most recently 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.”

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.

"Thanks to the independent OCE we have seen vastly improved transparency and action by the ethics committee — however, sadly this very success has led to the OCE being attacked. The agency is in danger of being critically weakened, or even eliminated, when the new Republican majority rewrites the ethics rules of the House,” said Public Citizen’s Lisa Gilbert. “The public deserves better."

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 supersede 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 to the comments from Boehner’s spokesman. “I think the cost of that would be pretty high politically.”