Despite watchdogs’ worry, some signs suggest GOP might keep ethics office

Emerging signs suggest Republicans may choose to keep the Office of Congressional Ethics despite worries voiced by watchdog groups that GOP leaders will try to ax it. 

Watchdogs remain nervous, and Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer sent House GOP Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCoronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 Lobbying world Pelosi-Trump relationship takes turn for the terrible MORE (Ohio) a three-page letter Monday calling on him to keep the OCE to show the GOP is serious about not repeating the ethics mistakes of the previous Republican majority, then controlled by former Rep. Tom DeLay (Texas).

But Republicans on Monday pushed back on a report that Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) asked the OCE to justify its existence three days after the midterm, saying Dreier made no demands. 

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In addition, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCoronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 Lobbying world Pelosi-Trump relationship takes turn for the terrible MORE’s spokesman said no decision on the office’s future had been made. Boehner’s office previously had said that only Democrats have so far talked about eliminating the OCE. 

In the letter, Wertheimer called continuing the OCE “the most important ethics issue” Boehner will face in the next Congress.

“The OCE was created following the complete breakdown of the House ethics enforcement process in the 109th Congress, the last Congress in which the Republican party controlled the House,” Wertheimer wrote.

The OCE, an ethics entity Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pushed to create in March of 2008, has had a brief and controversial two-and-a-half-year history. 

It has investigated more than 60 cases, referred more than a dozen to the House ethics committee for further review and ushered in an unprecedented level of ethics scrutiny in the process. Several targets of the probes on both sides of the aisle have complained the process unfairly drags names through the mud before charges are thoroughly vetted.

Two GOP targets of an OCE fundraising probe, Reps. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Tom Price (R-Ga.), won leadership contests last week. Both have said the OCE treated them unfairly and adamantly denied breaking any House ethics rules. The OCE dropped its investigation of Hensarling but forwarded the case against Price, along with Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.) and Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), to the ethics committee for further review.

The ethics office was not set up as a permanent fixture of the House and requires reauthorization at the beginning of each Congress, which will likely be included in a House rules package.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel on Monday said no decision has been made regarding the OCE. Separately, a guidebook for freshmen produced by incoming Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorThe Democrats' strategy conundrum: a 'movement' or a coalition? The biggest political upsets of the decade Bottom Line MORE’s (Va.) office explained how the OCE operates without any mention of plans to eliminate or weaken it.

A number of watchdog groups fear Republicans will try to include provisions in the House rules package to gut the OCE or diminish its powers. 

They have seized on a media report that Dreier, the ranking member of the powerful Rules Committee, called the OCE three days after the election to warn it would be eliminated. 

One knowledgeable GOP aide, however, disputes the account, contending that members of the OCE reached out to Dreier to inquire about the OCE’s future under GOP control and that Dreier simply listened to them and passed on the information to GOP leaders.

“These members of the OCE reached out to Dreier first, and he listened attentively to their thoughts and passed on the information that they sent,” said the staffer. “He made no demands of them.”

The OCE subsequently sent Dreier a memo aimed at justifying its existence, but the Republican said Dreier in no way demanded it.

“They called him and he called them back,” said the staffer. “I know he didn’t demand the memo. It was a casual conversation. He said, ‘If you have thoughts, send them along.’ ”

During these first few weeks of the Republican transition to the majority, partisan tensions are running high and Democrats are eager to remind the public about Republicans’ past ethics transgressions.

“The Democrats are waiting for us to fall into the trap we fell into before,” said the staffer. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I really don’t see the mistakes of the past being repeated again.”

When it comes to the arcane inner workings of the ethics committee, the public has a very short memory. Wertheimer is trying to turn up the pressure by highlighting some of the ethics complaints lodged against DeLay and other Republicans as proof the OCE has improved the ethics process and is still needed to ensure that rules are followed.

“The dysfunctional nature of the House ethics committee in 2005 and 2006 was dramatically illustrated by the failure of the committee to conduct any investigation or take any action to deal with the Abramoff scandals, the worst congressional ethics and lobbying scandals in decades,” Wertheimer wrote Boehner. “This failure was a stunning indictment of the ethics committee and the House ethics enforcement process.”

He also cited support from Tea Party leaders in Boehner’s home state of Ohio for strengthening the OCE, saying it would be a “grave mistake” to force incoming GOP freshmen to cast a tough vote on the office.

“With more than 100 new members in the new Congress, it would be a grave mistake to make them cast one of their first votes to kill or gut the OCE,” he wrote.