Even as House Republicans turned Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pledge to “drain the swamp” into an election-year mantra aimed at winning back control of the chamber, GOP lawmakers acknowledged they have not discussed how they would clean up ethical messes in Congress.
Republican leaders and rank-and-file Members said privately that there has been almost no discussion about the future of the House ethics process under a potential GOP majority.
Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated in a Thursday speech that a GOP majority would target earmark reforms in the next Congress, as well as other process reforms, but he did not mention House ethics rules.
A spokesman for Boehner declined in September to discuss Republican plans for the ethics panel or rules, offering only a general statement.
“The election-year pledge to ‘drain the swamp’ remains one of Washington Democrats’ most glaring broken promises,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “House Republicans have been clear: Congress, and the American people, need an ethics process that works.”
Among the most likely targets for changes to the ethics process in a Republican-controlled House would be the fledgling Office of Congressional Ethics, which has drawn the ire of Members from both parties.
The House established the OCE in 2008 in an attempt to provide transparency in the normally secretive ethics process and boost public confidence that the chamber could police its Members.
The OCE reviews potential rules violations and recommends investigations to the House ethics committee. It has investigated about 70 Members.
But lawmakers, including nearly two dozen Democrats, have criticized the OCE and called for the office’s investigative powers to be sharply curtailed.
One Republican Member said that even if GOP lawmakers would like to dismantle or otherwise alter the office, there is no reason to promote such plans as long as Democrats continue to take shots at the OCE.
But Rep. Jeb Hensarling said he remains opposed to the quasi-independent office, which Republicans opposed en masse at the time of its creation.
“I haven’t changed my mind about that particular institution,” the Texas Republican said.
“Is there some kind of power struggle?” he added, referring to public spats between the OCE and the House ethics panel. “Certainly the system as it works today is not working very well. OCE has got to be completely re-examined.”
Boehner said at a news conference in July that a Republican majority would review the OCE and raised concerns about the office’s effectiveness, but he did not offer specifics.
During the 2008 debate over whether the House should create an outside ethics panel, GOP leaders opposed the OCE and called instead for alterations to be made to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
It remains to be seen whether GOP lawmakers would revive those proposals in a review of the House ethics process.
Rep. Timothy Johnson, who voted in favor of the OCE, remains among the few Republican defenders of the two-tier ethics process.
The Illinois lawmaker called on a GOP majority to do “what we can do to make it work better.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.