GOP's Swamp-Draining Plans Remain Murky

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.”

“They’ve been fair and unbiased,” he said, although he acknowledged he is open to changes to the process. “What you call it is less important than what they do.”

GOP leaders, including Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), have issued in recent months a general call for their colleagues to hew to the ethics rules, but they have offered few specifics.

“It is incumbent upon us to institute a zero tolerance policy,” Cantor said in an August interview with the National Review.

He asserted that GOP Members had learned from 2006, when ethical lapses helped lead to Republicans losing control of the House. Democrats’ campaign platform that cycle charged GOP with nurturing a “culture of corruption.”

Boehner told Roll Call in May that he has personally intervened with Members he thought were about to or had violated ethical standards, if not specific House rules. Those revelations came after the resignation of Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who stepped down after his affair with an aide became public.

In the meantime, GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence said in a recent interview that he has asked colleagues to “tone down the political rhetoric” when discussing the ethics process.

“We’re dealing with the reputation of the institution,” The Indiana lawmaker said.

Pence added that Republicans are focused on the outcome of November elections, rather than specific rules changes.

“The only way we can hope to make a lasting improvement of the public opinion of ethics in Congress is if we have a functioning ethics committee,” he said.

Pence also praised members of two House ethics subcommittees who charged two senior Democratic lawmakers in unrelated cases with violating chamber rules.

“It’s heartening to see the ethics committee do its job,” he said.

But GOP members of the panel, led by ranking member Jo Bonner (Ala.), criticized Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) last week over her alleged refusal to schedule hearings before the November elections in either case.

Lofgren has not responded to the allegations, although Democrats denied the accusations and said negotiations over scheduling were ongoing.

Democrats also dismissed criticisms of their efforts to improve House ethics, pointing to a host of reforms enacted since 2007, including new gift and travel restrictions, the OCE and earmark reform.

Nonetheless, Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), first elected in 2006, suggested that a Democratic majority would still need to revisit the ethics process next year.

“We still have more to do on ethics reform,” he said. “The Republicans talk a good game on ethics reform, but people shouldn’t forget they fought us to the bitter end on ethics reform last Congress.”

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