Watchdogs urge House leaders to keep ethics panel

A long list of good-government groups is urging House leaders this week to extend the life of an independent office charged with probing congressional misconduct.

The watchdogs say the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) "has significantly improved the House ethics process" by adding unprecedented transparency to an otherwise murky system while amassing "an outstanding record of bipartisan ethics enforcement."

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They're calling on House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJohn Feehery: A political forest fire Trump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery MORE (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) "to publicly and expeditiously announce" their intent to extend the life of the OCE into the next Congress.

"The OCE’s breadth of public investigations includes questions surrounding earmarks, travel allowances, permissible uses of legal expense funds, potential lobbying disclosure act violations, the combined efforts of which has generated significant improvement in legislative transparency," the groups wrote in a Sept. 4 letter.

"While the Office would be best served by further strengthening, we believe at this juncture it is most important that the bipartisan leadership of the House demonstrate your continued commitment to the OCE and publicly commit to its continued operation in the next Congress."

Groups signing the letter include the Sunlight Foundation, Public Citizen, the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, Common Cause and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Several prominent congressional scholars — including Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and American University's James Thurber — also endorsed the plea.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Thursday that House Democrats "are firmly committed" to extending the OCE's funding into the 114th Congress. 

"The creation of this body under the Democratic Majority, along with sweeping changes to House rules, remains critical to efforts to reform the way Washington works,” Hammill said in an email.

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJohn Feehery: A political forest fire Trump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery MORE has been critical of the OCE since its inception six years ago, though he has not actively sought to eliminate the office since he won the Speaker's gavel in 2011.

Boehner's office did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Created in 2008 by then-Speaker Pelosi, the OCE has launched more than 100 investigations into allegations of congressional wrongdoing, winning praise from many lawmakers and government watchdogs. They say the group is a much more reliable congressional monitor than the House Ethics Committee, whose members are charged with policing their own colleagues.

But the OCE has also stirred plenty of controversy. Many lawmakers, particularly those who have been investigated by the group, consider it a redundant watchdog that's too-often smeared members' reputations with allegations that later went nowhere in the Ethics Committee.

The good-government groups reject that argument, however, maintaining that inaction by the Ethics Committee is precisely the reason the OCE is necessary.

"While we are aware that you will no doubt hear from some skeptics in both of your caucuses who would prefer to do away with the OCE, we urge you to reject this short-sighted viewpoint which is exactly the 'above-the-law' attitude that helps fuel public distrust of a Congress whose approval levels have hit record lows," the groups wrote in their letter.