Pelosi faces pressure to intervene in ethics committee dispute

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is facing mounting pressure to intervene in an intense dispute between an outside ethics office she pushed through the House and the full ethics committee.

Board members and senior staff of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) are threatening to resign if the ethics committee doesn’t meet a deadline the OCE believes is critical to its role, according to several sources within the ethics community.

Former Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.), both respected ex-members, as well as the rest of the OCE board, are taking a united stand against any failure to produce the reports, according to Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who played a key role in the OCE’s creation.

The ethics committee has until Friday or possibly Saturday (the date also is in dispute) to release separate investigative reports on Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesHouse passes bipartisan water infrastructure bill Lawmakers left with more questions than answers on Trump infrastructure plan Five obstacles to Trump's infrastructure ambitions MORE (R-Mo.), as well as an unidentified member.

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said the Speaker believes cooler heads will prevail and the two sides will forge a compromise before the deadline.

“We remain confident that any issue that may arise will be resolved by the two bodies working together in the interests of the House,” he said.

The rules governing the creation of the OCE force the ethics committee to release the OCE’s investigative reports on members that are forwarded to the panel for further review unless it launches an investigative subcommittee, a sign the committee is seriously digging into the allegations.

On Sept. 16, the ethics committee announced that it had voted to extend consideration of the Graves and Waters matters for an additional 45 days. As the OCE reads the calendar, the reports should be made official Friday.

Leading watchdogs in Washington are monitoring the matter closely. They were intimately involved in the discussions and debates that led to the creation of the OCE and have been evaluating its contribution to helping burnish the House ethics process. So far, all of the groups have been impressed with the OCE’s work and feel that its authority, as well as Democrats’ credibility on ethics matters, is on the line this week.

“It think it’s a very dangerous time for Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats,” said Meredith McGehee, the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. “I hope they understand how tenuous the situation is because of how high-profile they’ve been on the ethics issue and their claims of holding the high ground.”

The watchdogs, including U.S. PIRG, Public Citizen, Common Cause, the Campaign Legal Center, the League of Women Voters and Democracy 21, released a statement Tuesday supporting the OCE’s position and stressing the importance of the ethics committee meeting the deadline.

“Friday is the benchmark of the new transparency that was promised in the creation of the OCE on the heels of Speaker Pelosi’s commitment to ‘the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history,’ ” the groups said. “We look forward to the milestone in the OCE’s brief history.”

Tensions between the two ethics bodies started brewing in the OCE’s first months as the ethics committee reacted to the OCE’s activity. The committee took its first public shot at the OCE in September, when it announced that it had voted to extend consideration of the Graves and Waters matters for the additional 45 days.

In its public announcement, the ethics panel chastised the OCE for failing to provide what it considered “exculpatory” information to Graves. The OCE fired back, arguing that the ethics committee had “mischaracterized” its report in the Graves case.

Ornstein and McGehee said the OCE findings will show that the so-called “exculpatory” information came from Graves himself, so there would be no reason to give it back to him.

Rep. Jo Bonner (Ala.), the senior GOP member of the ethics committee, said the panel was planning to meet soon to figure out how to proceed.

“It’s premature to speculate about whether deadlines are going to be met and actions are going to be taken,” he said.

Ethics committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) last week tried to clear the air by meeting with the entire OCE board, including Skaggs and Goss. But the distrust was still evident in a quarterly report the OCE released Tuesday, which highlighted the deadlines for the ethics committee to release the OCE reports.

The two sides have held several meetings since then but have not resolved the matter.

If the panel withholds the reports, the OCE could release them itself, publicly provide more information than the ethics committee releases, or protest the process by resigning en masse.