House Ethics Overseers Tweak Rules

Posted February 27, 2009 at 6:23pm

The Office of Congressional Ethics is ready to begin reviewing the behavior of House Members and staff, but the panel late last week moved first to fine-tune the standards of conduct for its own members.

Among the significant additions to the OCE’s internal rules package — first adopted in late January — is a prohibition intended to establish a bright line between board members and political campaigns.

The new rule bans individual board members from participating in an investigation if they have made contributions to the campaign committees, political action committees or legal defense funds of the Member in question or to his or her political opponent within the previous five years.

In the event that an OCE board member triggers the new rule, he or she is automatically recused from the investigation and an alternate board member — either former Rep. Abner Mikva (D-Ill.) or former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) — would serve as a substitute.

Government reform advocates raised the specter of a similar ban at a January hearing on the OCE’s rules, prompting Members to discuss alternatives like the one adopted Friday.

“The change reflects our collective judgment,” OCE Chairman and ex-Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) said at the hearing.

Campaign Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee praised the inclusion of the new rule — “I appreciate the fact that you put this in,” she said — but suggested the five-year period may not be sufficient to eliminate all conflicts of interest.

In addition, the board also approved an amendment to its code of conduct to clarify that its members may not receive gifts or gratuities for their service, other than the per diem permitted under House rules.

Ex-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), the panel’s co-chairman, emphasized that the added provisions were not prompted by any incidents, adding, “We wanted an abundance of caution and clarity to reassure the public.”

Under the initial rules adopted in January, OCE members are also prohibited from accepting compensation for their posts, with the exception of the per diem.

Goss’ remark on the gift rule was one of the only points of discussion in a half-hour meeting during which OCE board members rapidly approved the amendments.

Among the other changes, the OCE added a “statement of principles” to its code of conduct for board members and staff, requiring all individuals associated with the office to pledge to uphold its own rules and those of the House.

In addition, board members and staff must also complete the same annual ethics training required by other House offices.

The ethics office, established in 2007, is tasked with reviewing potential rules violations and recommending investigations to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.