Dem seeks to slash funding for ethics office set up by Pelosi

The House on Friday is scheduled to consider legislation that would slash funding for a controversial ethics office set up by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) several years ago. 

The amendment, offered by Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), presents an opportunity for members to express their displeasure with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have long grumbled about the office; however, most have been reticent about publicly airing their views, worried about the appearance of calling for the dismantling of an ethics office in Congress.

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Many expected Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to kill the OCE, which was championed by Pelosi when Democrats were in charge of the lower chamber. But Boehner, who voted against the creation of OCE in 2008, allowed the office to continue in the new Congress. 

Pelosi’s office did not comment for this article. 

Watt is seeking to add his amendment — which would cut OCE’s funding by 40 percent, or $619,000 — to the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. The money would be allocated to reduce the nation’s deficit.

Critics of Watt’s measure say it would effectively gut the OCE, noting that Watt was under investigation by the ethics office during the last Congress. Watt, along with other House Democrats and Republicans, was later cleared by the House Ethics Committee. The OCE probe focused on fundraising events surrounding the House’s passage of the Wall Street reform bill.

“It’s particularly sad that the amendment is being introduced by someone who was investigated by the OCE,” said David Vance, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center.

“The OCE has been very professional and very bipartisan,” he added. “Basically, it’s the only transparent and functioning ethics entity in the House.”

A letter signed by various watchdog groups condemned the Watt bill, claiming the OCE “has done an outstanding job in carrying out its mission to help protect the integrity of the House.”

“There is absolutely no basis for reducing OCE’s funding,” the letter added.

Watt did not comment for this article. 

In a “Dear Colleague” letter, Watt claimed the OCE is duplicative of the House Ethics Committee, that OCE staff extended the office’s mission beyond what was intended and that the OCE believes it has the authority to review constituent files and communications that are “privileged under the precedent of the House.”

Watt also argued that the procedures of the OCE “are unfair and abusive of the rights of members of the House,” and that the ethics office “wastes taxpayer money.” 

He finishes the letter by encouraging members to support his amendment to “return some measure of fairness to our institution.”

The OCE, made up of former members and other officials who have served in Congress, is set up as a parallel ethics entity to the House Ethics Committee. The OCE can initiate probes and refer them to the House Ethics panel. Some of the information OCE collects can be made public. 

Some members have been very frustrated that some OCE information has been leaked to the media, including the existence of an investigation into Watt and others on the Wall Street reform bill.

This is not the first time the OCE has been targeted. Last year, 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Watt, co-sponsored legislation that would revamp the office.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who crafted that bill, said at the time that OCE had unfairly damaged the reputation of lawmakers in the House, adding that OCE is “the accuser, judge and jury.”

The bill died, however, never coming to a vote in committee or on the House floor.

Supporters of the OCE, including Democracy 21, Common Cause and Public Citizen, say the OCE is especially needed now. They point out that the House Ethics Committee has been in disarray and dormant since allegations surfaced last year that it mishandled evidence in an investigation of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). 

Waters has denied wrongdoing in the case, and repeatedly criticized the Ethics panel.

In an extraordinary move, the Ethics Committee tapped outside counsel to review the Waters case, as well as allegations of improper activities by officials on the panel.