Office of Congressional Ethics withstands controversies five years after its birth

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Five years on, the independent office charged with probing congressional misconduct has weathered an onslaught of lawmaker criticisms and appears here to stay.

But the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) is no less contentious now than it was at its tumultuous inception, and the controversy — in Congress and out — continues to swirl.

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The debate pits government watchdog groups, which consider the OCE the only team in town taking any serious look at ethics charges, against lawmakers from both parties who say the panel is redundant, overzealous and does far more harm than good.

“There’s absolutely no need for this group,” Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who was the subject of an OCE probe into congressional travel several years ago, said recently.

“There is no question in my mind that that committee can smear the reputation of members of Congress and do irreparable harm,” Rangel added. “I think that Republicans and Democrats would agree that their allegations are far more serious than the good that they do.”

Still, even the OCE’s sharpest critics concede that the group has gained a foothold after five years and will likely be around for many years to come.

“I’m sure there’s political pressure — outside political pressure — on Republicans and Democrats to have it,” Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), another subject of an OCE probe, said last month. “That’s what I found when I was out there and that’s what appears to be the case now.”

No one needs to tell that to Speaker John Boehner. The Ohio Republican was an early and vocal critic of the OCE, warning in 2008 that the panel would be a failure haunting Congress for years.

Based on such comments, OCE supporters had feared that Boehner would terminate the group when he took control of the Speaker’s gavel in 2011. But the political pressure to keep the OCE intact trumped his concerns — not least because the Republicans had hammered Democrats on ethics issues leading up to the 2010 elections and wanted to avoid the certain negative press that would have followed the elimination of the group.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said recently that the Speaker’s opposition to the OCE has not changed, though the House has provided the OCE’s funding each year, even with the Republicans in control.

In the eyes of watchdog groups, that’s good news. They contend the OCE is providing the oversight that members of the House Ethics Committee have been reluctant to provide.

“They have not gotten caught up in protecting Congress by taking these very twisted interpretations [of House rules],” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.

To be sure, the OCE has evolved to become an entrenched part of the investigative process into charges of congressional wrongdoing.

The OCE was created in March 2008 by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as part of her effort to “drain the swamp” of congressional corruption. Pelosi narrowly won a procedural vote, 207-206, that paved the way for the office’s creation. Months later, the entity was up and running.

The OCE has launched 116 probes into potential ethics violations — 15 this year — of which 42 have been referred to the House Ethics Committee for further review.

How the Ethics Committee handles the OCE’s recommendations has been a source of much controversy.

Many probes, for instance, are designated as 18(a) cases, a reference to the rule empowering the panel to investigate the charges further. The Ethics Committee considers the 18(a) status to be a “fact gathering” tool, according to annual reports. But the rule includes no deadline for action, and no requirement for disclosing why certain cases are pursued and others are dropped. The lack of transparency has led to charges that the Ethics Committee’s actions are simply not verifiable, to the point that the public might never see proof that the panel investigated anything at all.

The effects of the OCE’s work on the lawmakers under investigation also vary. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), for instance, shocked the political world in May by announcing that she won’t seek another term. The decision came not long after it was revealed that the OCE was investigating charges that she’d mishandled campaign finances in the 2012 presidential race, leading to wide speculation that the probe had nudged her into retirement.

Others haven’t suffered the same political fallout. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), for example, was tapped last December to head the Democrats’ Steering and Policy Committee just a few months after the OCE issued a damning report into his alleged misuse of campaign funds to take personal trips.

Last month, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington petitioned the OCE to take up the case of Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), a freshman lawmaker who has pleaded guilty to cocaine possession.

Both the OCE and the House Ethics Committee declined to comment for this article.

To be sure, the OCE investigations have strained the group’s relationship with certain lawmakers. Watt, whose vote had helped create the OCE, later proposed an amendment to slash the panel’s budget by 40 percent — a response to an investigation into Watt’s fundraising during the debate over the Dodd-Frank bank reform bill the year before. Watt’s measure failed overwhelmingly.

Former Rep. Pete Stark displayed his outrage in another way. Under investigation over questions about his legal residence in 2010, the California Democrat became “extremely belligerent and frequently insulted the OCE staff members interviewing him,” according to the OCE’s report on the incident.

Rangel, for one, suggested lawmakers would have a rosier view of the OCE if more of the group’s investigations led to disciplinary action by the Ethics Committee. 

“If they think a case is serious enough to publicly say that they’re investigating, well damn it to hell, they should be successful,” he said. “If they were batting, you know, .800, well you can tolerate the .200 that were thrown out.”

But good-government groups say the low rate of action by the Ethics Committee is exactly the reason the OCE is so important.

Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, said the OCE was needed because the Ethics Committee had devolved into a place that “existed ... to excuse congressional misconduct.”

Allison said the OCE alone is not enough to change the culture on Capitol Hill, but it’s a good start.

“You don’t change that overnight,” he said. “But it’s at least put a cop on the beat where there wasn’t one before. The problem is we probably need six or seven cops on that beat. Or maybe 20.”