Watchdogs demand a commitment from Boehner to keep ethics board

Watchdog groups are turning up the heat on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to preserve the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) in the next Congress.

The outside ethics board will cease to exist in less than a month unless Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) replace at least four of the panel’s six members. 

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Pelosi has pledged to make her selections, but Boehner’s office has remained quiet, raising the ire of good-government advocates who are demanding a firm commitment from the Speaker.

“On the Democratic side, we’ve got some assurance that they’re going to fulfill their responsibility, but from Boehner I’ve gotten absolutely no word whatsoever,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.

“I’ve literally been harassing his office to try and get someone to respond, and I’ve gotten nothing,” said Holman, who said he has been calling Boehner’s staff, sometimes daily, for the past month.

A request for comment from Boehner’s office was not returned, but a spokesman told Roll Call in September that the OCE selection process was on their radar.

OCE board members Yvonne Burke, Jay Eagen, Karan English and Allison Hayward will have their terms expire at the end of this Congress, and it is up to Boehner and Pelosi to choose their replacements and approve of the others’ selections. 

“House Democrats are firmly committed to the continuation of the OCE and replacements will be named at the appropriate time,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, in a statement to The Hill.

The OCE has become a source of irritation for lawmakers since it was created more than four years ago at the prodding of Pelosi, who led Democrats back to the majority in 2006 on a promise to “drain the swamp” of rampant ethics abuses.

OCE opponents complain that the board, which does not have subpoena power, is too aggressive and unfairly tarnishes the reputation of innocent lawmakers.

But good-government groups laud the OCE and fear Boehner’s silence over the board’s selection process could indicate he is buckling to pressure from his rank and file to let the outside investigative ethics panel expire or, at the very least, severely reduce its power. 

“I think most members are opposed to the OCE and think that it’s overly aggressive, but they don’t like the Ethics Committee either,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “No one likes the police going after them.”

Public Citizen and CREW plan to join with Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, Sunlight Foundation and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) next week in the Longworth House Office Building for a press conference pressuring Boehner to pledge his support for the OCE’s continuation. 

The groups acknowledge the immense workload that Boehner is dealing with as he attempts to hammer out a deal with Democrats and the White House to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”

But some wonder whether the fiscal-cliff debates could be just the distraction that opponents of the OCE need in order to do away with the board as silently as possible. Watchdogs say lawmakers would be hard-pressed to publicly oppose the OCE for fear of being painted as corrupt.

“What they really want is to make the OCE go away without ever having to be responsible for it, so if they could find a way to let it vanish without a lot of lasting negative attention they would, and it’s always possible that the fiscal cliff negotiations would allow that,” said Sloan.

Holman said he has heard that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been arguing for the demise of the OCE behind the scenes.

When Boehner became Speaker in 2010, rumors swirled that Republicans might attempt to gut the OCE or eliminate it altogether. But the board remained intact, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) vowed to implement a “zero-tolerance” policy when it came to ethics violations.

Since then, members of both parties have faced ethics troubles, many of which have been investigated by the OCE.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), one of the chief architects of the OCE’s founding resolution, said he expects Boehner will move to make his selections to the board.

“Speaker Boehner didn’t have any problems with it two years ago, and I don’t expect he will now,” Capuano told The Hill.

Capuano said he understood some of the criticisms aimed at the board but argued it has done exactly the job that it was set up to do.

“Some of the concerns are legitimate, and they could be easily addressed, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not a good idea,” he said.

The co-chairmen of the OCE, Porter Goss and David Skaggs, are expected to continue on, and the board’s two alternate members — Bill Frenzel and Abner Mikva — could be appointed as permanent members. If Frenzel and Mikva decide to step down from the OCE, Boehner and Pelosi must select four new permanent board members and at least two more alternates.

Holman said he plans to open talks with some of the lower ranks of Republican leadership to apply pressure on Boehner from the bottom up.


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