House Beats Back Effort to Weaken Office of Congressional Ethics, But It Was Ugly

On Friday rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives beat back a last-minute amendment by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) to reduce proposed funding for the Office of Congressional Ethics by nearly 9 percent. In the end 137 representatives voted in favor of the cut and 270 opposed, with Republicans more-or-less evenly split and nearly all Democrats opposed. This came only after a voice vote where the chair declared the measure to cut funds had passed [see transcript]; only a roll call vote, which forces members to individually declare where they stand, resulted in most members voting no.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) is an independent watchdog established by the House of Representatives in the wake of several scandals, including the Jack Abramoff lobbying corruption scandal and the Rep. Foley House page sexual misconduct scandal, that helped bring Democrats to power in 2007. Its purpose is to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by members of the House of Representatives and it is empowered to start investigations on its own initiative or on a tip from anyone. When OCE determines that wrongdoing may have occurred, it refers the matter to the House Ethics Committee, which is supposed to investigate.

The House established OCE in part because the Ethics Committee was not performing its job. So long as members of Congress did not refer matters to the Ethics Committee, the Committee was not empowered conduct investigations — and for many years a detente existed where members refrained from filing complaints. The Speaker of the House at the time, Dennis Hastert, also had no interest in encouraging the ethics process to work. As has been recently revealed, the former Speaker was a “serial child molester,” in the words of the federal judge who sentenced him to 15 months in prison, who paid millions of dollars in hush money to keep the allegations of abuse secret. He also reportedly used his official position as a member of Congress to net millions of dollars in profits by steering an earmark to build a highway near property he owned, thereby increasing its value when he sold it.

When OCE provides a report to the Ethics Committee, the fact of that report eventually becomes publicly available and the resulting publicity often prompts the Ethics Committee to conduct reviews based on OCE’s findings. Members of the Ethics Committee are in the unenviable position of reviewing the conduct of their peers, so the independent OCE serves as a check on their natural tendencies to avoid rocking the boat.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is slated to receive $1.6 million in funds next year; Rep. Pearce’s amendment to the legislative branch appropriations bill would have slashed $190,000 from that amount. He had offered another amendment to zero out funds for the agency entirely, which was not allowed to go to the floor for a vote. Rep. Pearce has made efforts to weaken OCE in previous years through the House Rules process. Other Members of Congress investigated by OCE have led efforts in prior years to cut funding, including one effort by Rep. Mel Watt to cut its funding by 40 percent.

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Particularly troubling in this instance is that the House Rules Committee, which is the embodiment of the Speaker’s power and priorities in the House of Representatives, gave the go-ahead for this effort to reduce OCE’s proposed funding. The chair of that committee, Pete Sessions (R-TX), voiced generalized complaints about OCE in an interview with Roll Call.

Previously, Rep. Sessions was accused by the non-profit Campaign for Accountability of taking legislative steps to support the payday loan industry in close proximity to receiving contributions by members of that industry. With regular order being pushed aside for greater control of the lawmaking process by leadership, the votes of members of the Rules Committee will have great sway regarding the matters that are and are not considered by the full chamber.

A coalition of organization (including Demand Progress) came out in strong opposition to Rep. Pearce’s amendment. We wrote, in part:

The OCE has been a singular success at a time when public approval of Congress is at an all-time low. It has compiled a record of professionalism, and more amazing in the current atmosphere, a record of bipartisan agreement. It has dismissed more than half of the complaints it has received. The Office applies ethics standards consistently, and interprets ethics rules and laws in a common sense way.

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The Office of Congressional ethics is a singular improvement in the operations of the congressional ethics process. It should be strengthened, not weakened. In particular, the House should grant OCE the power to subpoena documents and witnesses, so it can obtain answers to its questions. Currently, witnesses can simply stonewall the watchdog, secure in the knowledge that the Ethics Committee will do its best to undermine OCE and ignore its investigations.

In six months, the House will again examine its rules, which in part establish the OCE and set its parameters. We can expect another attempt to weaken the watchdog. These attempts on its life are an illustration of the importance of the Office of Congressional Ethics and must be turned back. Vigilance is the watchword for OCE, and for us.

— Written by Daniel Schuman