Ethics committee, watchdogs meet over rule change

The House ethics committee sought to quell fears about a potential turf war between it and the new Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) in a meeting with concerned watchdogs Thursday afternoon.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), chair and ranking member of the ethics committee, as well as the panel’s staff director, Blake Chisam, and several counsels, huddled with five government watchdogs and congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein.

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The meeting was called to discuss a recent ethics committee internal rule change that the watchdogs worried could undercut the powers of the OCE. The new rule defined investigation to include not just the formal launch of an investigative subcommittee but a decision by the chairman and ranking member to launch an inquiry.

After months of work and negotiation by a bipartisan ethics task force, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) flexed her muscle to force the OCE’s creation on a suspicious Congress. Over the fears of fellow Democrats, Pelosi pushed the issue because she felt the ethics process had been tarnished while Republicans controlled the House and an independent body was needed to restore its integrity.

The resolution creating it passed in a protracted vote in March 2008 after it nearly failed in a procedural vote. The resolution stipulated that the ethics committee could only stop an OCE probe upon notice that it was conducting an “investigation.”

Usually the ethics committee reviews a matter and then publicly launches an investigative subcommittee if it believes the accusations are credible and serious enough to warrant further scrutiny. Watchdogs feared that the new House ethics rule would allow the panel to yank an investigation away from the OCE based on a looser model: simply through a private vote by the chair and ranking member of the panel.

During Thursday’s meeting, however, Lofgren and Bonner said any decision to halt an OCE investigation would require a vote by all the members of the panel.

Lofgren and Bonner said they consulted with the House parliamentarian and general counsel before making the changes and argued that they were not trying to provide a way to deep-six OCE probes.

“In adopting our rules there was no intent to upset the apple cart and do anything oddball,” Lofgren assured.

“We did this with the consult of others – it was really nothing sinister,” Bonner said.

The watchdogs were polite but firm and said they believed the OCE would follow its own rules and continue with investigations unless the panel launched a formal investigation, which usually entails establishing an investigative subcommittee.

“This is a matter of regular order,” said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer. “The OCE is trying to follow it’s own rules.”

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“We’re really not looking for a fight,” he added. “We hope whatever natural tensions that exist can be worked through.”

Wertheimer was among the groups who supported the final resolution creating the OCE back in 2008. Other watchdog groups such as the Campaign Legal Center and Public Citizen, decided not to endorse it because they thought it lacked the tools needed to conduct investigations, such as subpoena power.

During Thursday’s meeting, Sarah Dufendach of U.S. PIRG, a watchdog who supported the resolution in 2008, pointed out that her organization’s support of the final version of the OCE was based in part on its ability to work independently. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who headed the ethics task force, negotiated with the groups on specific language dealing with when the panel could take over an investigation the OCE started reviewing.

“This particular issue was raised as they were finalizing the resolution,” said U.S. PIRG’s Gary Kalman.

Several of the watchdogs and congressional reformers praised the current ethics committee’s work so far and stressed that they didn’t believe Lofgren and Bonner were trying to create a way to undermine the ethics process.

“We don’t have a beef with the ethics committee,” said Mann. “This is really a concern about what happens in the future. We believe your intentions are absolutely honorable. The question is: Are we building potentially a precedent that someone would exploit in the future?”