Watchdogs plead with Boehner and Pelosi for ethics appointments

Good-government groups on Wednesday pleaded with House leaders to quickly appoint new board members to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) for the next Congress.

The ethics office will cease to exist in less than a month unless House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) replace at least four of the panel’s six full members.  

Both leaders have pledged to make their selections, but watchdog groups are concerned that the process is not moving fast enough, and fear the appointments will fall by the wayside as leaders engage in “fiscal cliff” negotiations.

Ken Boehm, the head of the National Legal and Policy Center, warned that the OCE’s expiration date is coming soon — “at the end of this session, a matter of days.”

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“There are strong bipartisan vibes against [the OCE] by members of Congress,” Boehm said at a press conference. “But the public is overwhelmingly critical of Congress’s ability to police itself, and we can’t imagine the public would in any way support the pulling of the plug.” 

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

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

Watchdog groups of all ideological persuasions have praised the board’s work over the years, and on Wednesday joined together in an attempt to save it.

“Is it perfect? No,” said the conservative Judicial Watch group’s Chris Farrell of the OCE. “But it does a fact-finding mission that, for whatever reason — and there are many — the [Ethics] Committee itself was either unwilling or unable to do.

“Actions speak louder than words. So we look forward to strong action being taken quickly, the appointments being made and the OCE being reconstituted to move forward in this next Congress. This is an issue of principle over politics.”

The OCE board is made up of former lawmakers and well-known legal experts, and was established to serve as an objective nonpartisan outside body that investigates ethical allegations against members of Congress and their staffs.  

Upon completing a probe, the OCE refers its findings to the Ethics Committee with a recommendation to either investigate the matter further or drop the case. The committee is not bound by the OCE’s recommendation, but if the panel declines to investigate, the OCE’s report must be made public — a move that architects hoped would provide for greater levels of transparency.

Critics say the OCE process allows for rampant abuse, since any allegation filed against a lawmaker — no matter how spurious — is eventually released to the public. The maneuver was used against some lawmakers during the 2012 campaign.

At the end of the year, OCE board members Yvonne Burke, Jay Eagen, Karan English and Allison Hayward will have their terms expire, and it is up to Boehner and Pelosi to choose their replacements and approve of one another's selections.  

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.

Public Citizen, Judicial Watch, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, the National Legal Policy Center, the Sunlight Foundation and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group all signed on to a letter sent to Boehner and Pelosi on Wednesday pressing them for action on the matter.

When Boehner became Speaker in 2010, rumors swirled that Republicans might attempt to gut or eliminate the OCE. 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.