Watchdog groups prod Boehner, Pelosi to fill spots on ethics board

Watchdog groups are pressing House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to select replacements for the four retiring members on the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

Four of the six board members of the outside ethics panel will no longer be eligible to serve on the OCE in 2013 because of term limits. Good government groups are worried that if House leaders don’t move to replace them soon, the OCE won’t be able to carry out its mission and investigate allegations against lawmakers and staff.

“Whatever your choices, we urge your offices to begin considering potential replacements for the four expiring positions on the board at your earliest convenience so that the important work of ethics monitoring and accountability will not be neglected as the new Congress convenes,” the groups wrote in a letter on Thursday.

The groups include the Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Common Cause, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, Sunlight Foundation and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG).

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Boehner and Pelosi have given no indication that they’ve begun the selection process for replacing OCE board members Yvonne Burke, Jay Eagen, Karan English and Bill Frenzel. Requests for comment to their offices were not immediately returned.

The OCE has six board members — three chosen by the Speaker and three selected by the minority leader — and two alternates who can replace a vacancy on the board. Without a full board, the OCE will not be able to function.

The OCE was created after ethics scandals swept Capitol Hill in 2006, contributing to the GOP’s loss of power and Pelosi’s famous pledge to “drain the swamp.” The OCE serves as an outside ethics advisory board to the House Ethics Committee, conducting its own investigations and referring its results to the committee with a suggestion to either pursue the matter or drop it. 

The secretive Ethics Committee is not bound to follow OCE’s recommendations, but if it drops the matter, the report that OCE completed at the end of its investigation becomes public, lending the ethics process an air of transparency and public scrutiny it did not have before 2008.

Watchdog groups had feared that Republicans would gut funding for the OCE after winning back the House in 2010, but the ethics board has remained intact.

Similarly, several Democrats, led by Rep. Mel Watt (N.C.), have tried in recent years to dramatically strip the OCE’s appropriations, claiming that the panel unfairly tarnishes the names and reputations of members in a process that doesn’t adequately provide for their own defense.