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Why Republicans took aim at an ethics watchdog

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The failed attempt by Republicans to rein in an independent ethics office was the culmination of years of mounting frustration on Capitol Hill.

While House Republicans backed down Tuesday from their effort to tighten oversight of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the complaints about the office are unlikely to subside in the new Congress.

Lawmakers in both parties have griped about the OCE since its creation in 2008, saying the office’s powers are overly broad and can be used for partisan purposes.

Some of the Republicans behind the failed effort to bring the OCE under congressional oversight had been investigated by the office in the past, according to Politico, including Reps. Blake Farenthold (Texas), Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Sam Graves (Mo.). Farenthold’s investigation was ultimately dropped by the ethics office. 

{mosads}And while Democrats gleefully attacked Republicans Tuesday for seeking to change the OCE, they too have chafed at its approach to investigations. 

“There’s absolutely no need for this group,” said retired Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) in 2013. He had been a subject of an OCE investigation into his congressional travel.  

In 2011, former Democratic Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina introduced an amendment to cut OCE’s funding by 40 percent. He had been part of a group of lawmakers that had been investigated by the OCE for holding fundraisers before a key financial reform vote. (The OCE eventually dropped the inquiry.) 

Watt, who is now the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, at the time said the OCE is “unfair and sometimes abusive” to lawmakers.

Democrats created the OCE after winning the 2006 elections in part on a promise to “drain the swamp” — a phrase President-elect Donald Trump co-opted in the final weeks of the presidential campaign.

At the time, the public was clamoring for Washington to clean up Capitol Hill after the corruption and bribery scandal involving former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff that ensnared several lawmakers and aides. 

Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) set up a bipartisan panel that developed a plan to hold members more accountable. OCE was the result.

Intended to complement but not replace the House Ethics Committee, the OCE is comprised of four Republicans and four Democrats, each nominated by the congressional leader of their respective parties. None may be employees of the federal government.

During its creation, the watchdog’s founders made concessions to get it approved, including promising that it would have no ability to subpoena documents or individuals, even indirectly. 

OCE also cannot punish lawmakers for any wrongdoing it uncovers, and may only refer its findings and recommendations to the House Ethics Committee. There is no independent ethics office for the Senate.

The procedural vote creating the OCE passed the House by a single vote, 207-206, with Republicans mostly voting against it and Democrats mostly voting for it. 

OCE has launched 172 investigations into potential ethics violations since its founding — including a dozen in the 114th Congress — and referred 68 to the congressional ethics panel, according to a tally of data from OCE quarterly reports.

There have been many notable investigations by the watchdog, including some that have led to the early retirement or ouster of lawmakers.

OCE investigated allegations that then-Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) had been using his Capitol Hill office to operate a hedge fund; reviewed a trip to Azerbaijan taken by 10 lawmakers that was improperly paid for by a state-owned oil company; and looked at charges that then-Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Kansas) had granted special favors to his wife, who worked as a lobbyist. 

The independent body has also investigated then-Reps. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in separate charges that they had violated campaign or House rules involving finances.

Both Democrats and Republicans have taken swipes at the office over the years.

“The OCE has crossed the line over and over and over again,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said in response to Watt’s amendment in 2011 to cut the OCE’s funding. “They’ve gone on witch hunts. They’ve taken pieces of information that came from political opposition on either side, and embellished that into things.”

On Tuesday, King vowed to personally continue the fight against the office. 

The most recent attempt to curtail the OCE — outlined in the GOP amendment — would have made it subject to oversight from the House Ethics Committee, effectively ending its independence. 

The rules would have also prohibited individuals from submitting anonymous allegations to the OCE. Lawmakers say the whistleblower protections have been abused by their political foes, particularly during campaign season, to generate damaging headlines.

In addition, the rules would have forbidden the OCE from making any reports public without approval from the House ethics panel. The trip to Azerbaijan, for example, was only revealed to the public after the confidential OCE report sent to House ethics was leaked to the Washington Post. 

“There is no question in my mind that that committee can smear the reputation of members of Congress and do irreparable harm,” Rangel said in 2013, three years after being censured by his colleagues. “I think that Republicans and Democrats would agree that their allegations are far more serious than the good that they do.”

— Updated at 8:50 p.m.

Tags Alan Grayson Blake Farenthold Donald Trump Ed Whitfield Michele Bachmann Sam Graves Steve Stockman

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