House Ethics Office May Not Be Able to Launch Probes

The Office of Congressional Ethics as soon as Friday might find itself unable to take up full-scale investigations because House leaders have yet to reappoint the body’s eight-member board for the 112th Congress.

Lawmakers recently renewed the OCE, a quasi-independent body that reviews potential ethics violations and refers investigations to the House Ethics Committee, as part of the internal rules of the House.

Although each of the OCE’s current board members is assigned to a four-year term that does not end until 2013, the House must nonetheless reappoint the board at the start of each Congress, just as it reorganizes its own panels.

The OCE board is scheduled to meet Friday, but if the House does not reappoint its members before then, the office will be unable to initiate new investigations or to refer any pending matters to the Ethics Committee.

“Formally, the ethics board can’t act until they are reappointed because they aren’t on the board,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who has served in both the House and Senate general counsels’ offices.

“In the very short term, the board might get by the way the regular standing committees of the House do before they’re appointed, by not taking formal steps but laying the groundwork for immediately taking such steps upon appointment,” he added.

Tiefer said that means the OCE could maintain its staff and continue to do preliminary investigations, which it could return to once its board is repopulated. 

In an e-mail Tuesday, OCE spokesman Jon Steinman declined to state whether the OCE had addressed the issue with the House parliamentarian.

“The office has been doing its due diligence on this, as we do on everything,” Steinman wrote. But he added: “I can’t comment on internal processes or deliberations.”

In 2005, a dispute over internal rules prevented the House Ethics Committee, then known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, from organizing for several months.

As Roll Call reported at that time, the committee initially curbed its normal functions, declining to issue advice letters or gift rule waivers to Members, for example, about compliance with House rules.

The panel ultimately resumed those functions, however, at the advice of the House parliamentarian.

“I would say that the Ethics Committee ... has had periods of stalemate over the years when, for lack of support from its members on one side of the aisle or the other, it wasn’t able to act,” Tiefer said. “During those stalemates the public has put the House under pressure to get moving again on ethics. The public never seems to like the idea ... that because of the stalemate or gap in the ethics boards or committees, the Representatives are free to break the rules.”

Unlike the House Ethics Committee, the OCE’s board is limited to non-Members and currently includes six former lawmakers, one former House officer and one former Federal Election Commission aide.

The Speaker and Minority Leader each appoint four members to the board, but the leaders must consent to each other’s selections. Each board member is restricted to two consecutive terms, or eight years.

The House created the OCE in 2008 in an attempt to add transparency to the normally secretive ethics process.

The OCE has tallied more than 70 reviews since it began investigating lawmakers in early 2009, including 21 inquiries it referred to the House panel for further review.

“The importance of this office has been clearly demonstrated through the increased action and accountability on the part of the ethics committee and the increased transparency on the ethics process for the public. Any delays in appointment which place roadblocks in the way of the OCE should be taken down immediately, so that it can continue its critical work,” Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said in an e-mail.

The OCE has drawn the ire of Members from both parties, particularly those lawmakers who have fallen under its review. But House leaders opted not to reform the office when the chamber adopted new rules for the 112th Congress earlier this month.