Leaders Are Coy About Reforms to Ethics Panel

Posted June 9, 2010 at 6:21pm

With a handful of Members proposing significant changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics, Democratic leaders remained coy Wednesday over whether any measure to reform the office will reach the House floor.

Rep. Marcia Fudge prompted speculation over whether the House would re-evaluate its quasi-independent ethics office when the Ohio Democrat introduced a resolution just before the Memorial Day break that would significantly cut back the office’s powers to open and pursue investigations.

The House created the OCE in 2008 in an attempt to increase transparency in the chamber’s ethics process. The office is tasked with reviewing suspected rules violations and recommending investigations to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel.

But House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have given little indication whether the OCE will be reviewed or what reforms could be considered.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday he had yet to review the Fudge bill.

“We created the Office of Congressional Ethics to ensure that the public had access to making complaints, that there would be some outside eyes, if you will, looking at issues. And we want to make sure that it is working correctly,” the Maryland Democrat said.

“I think I will look at her proposal,” he added. “But this is a very new institution … and we are committed, as the Speaker has said on numerous occasions, to making sure that the American public has confidence in this institution operating in a way that gives them confidence that we are operating on behalf of their interests.”

A Pelosi spokesman offered a similar statement, noting ethics and lobbying reforms enacted since 2007, but he declined to comment on the Fudge measure.

Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that her committee had yet to receive the bill and had no immediate plans to address it, also leaving open whether lawmakers will review the OCE before the end of the year, when the House typically begins to revise its internal rules for the next Congress.

While the OCE has drawn broad support from government reform advocates — who encouraged Pelosi in a letter Wednesday to support the OCE and criticized Fudge’s proposal — most Members hesitated to publicly express an opinion on the ethics office.

Unlike standing House committees, however, the OCE’s board includes no sitting lawmakers, leaving open speculation over which Members, if any, would take the role of championing the fledgling office.

“There’s an expectation that the OCE will be defended by those who really created it. That is the leadership of the House and the freshmen of the House,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, one of the government reform advocates who advised the House task force that created the OCE’s framework. “They need others to defend them. The OCE can’t defend itself.”

Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), who backed an outside ethics panel and advocated for subpoena powers, which the OCE did not receive, said Wednesday: “It’s important that we continue our efforts at reform. We’ve made progress.”

But Hodes, who declined to comment on the reforms pitched by Fudge, stating he had not seen the bill, demurred over whether he would lead efforts favoring the OCE.

“I’ll make a decision at that time about what role I’ll play,” Hodes said.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who chaired a task force assigned to study the ethics process and then authored the resolution that created the OCE, said he does not intend to take a leading role to address any reforms.

“I drafted the will of the House,” Capuano said, noting that he served on the task force at Pelosi’s behest. He added however, that he would support an ongoing review of the overall House ethics process as Democrats on the task force recommended in their final report.

Republicans, who voted en masse against the OCE’s creation in 2008, have remained largely silent about the office since it began formal investigations in 2009, and a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) declined to comment on potential reforms.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who recently met with the OCE’s board to encourage the release of documents from an investigation involving earmarks, also voted against the OCE in 2008 and reiterated Wednesday that the House should better utilize its own ethics panel.

“I think we should be able to police ourselves but we haven’t been able to,” Flake said. He added that the OCE has been “useful”: “I’ll have to see what reforms come up.”

But others, including Rep. Joe Barton, remain opposed to the two-tier process. The Texas Republican faced an OCE investigation, which ultimately found no wrongdoing, of a nonprofit organization run by his family.

Although Barton said Wednesday that OCE investigators “treated my office fairly,” he lamented that the inquiry cost his campaign tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees and prompted the Joe Barton Family Foundation to cease fundraising for several months.

Barton also suggested reforms should place limits on when the OCE is able to initiate probes.

“The standard is so loose it puts every Member under the gun all the time,” Barton said.

Members have criticized the OCE for apparently pursuing investigations over allegations raised in newspaper articles, as well as in complaints written by ethics watchdog organizations.

In fact, Fudge’s proposed reforms would prohibit the OCE from pursuing any allegations unless the panel received a sworn complaint in which the filer vowed “personal knowledge” of the alleged violation.

Both the OCE and the House ethics committee may currently opt to initiate an investigation without a formal complaint. Only Members are allowed to file a formal complaint with the House ethics panel.

Asked whether he would support the OCE’s renewal, Barton stated: “I don’t think the current system is preferable.”

But Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, suggested that even without public support from Members, Pelosi’s support should maintain the office.

“The only one who matters, if Democrats hold the majority, is Nancy Pelosi. It’s going to be her call,” said Mann, who supported the creation of an independent ethics office.

“The last thing Pelosi would want to do is deep-six it, or disable it by preventing its reporting from becoming public,” he added.

Although six of the OCE’s eight board members are former House lawmakers, which grants them privileges to visit the House floor, observers familiar with the OCE said it is unlikely that the OCE board, chaired by former Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.), would attempt to lobby Members themselves.

“They’re prepared to pack it up and leave if rules changes were made that weaken them, say by not forcing their reports to be made public when the ethics committee decided not to act,” Mann said. “I think they’d resign in protest, but I don’t think they themselves would go lobby.”

The OCE board has never publicly suggested such actions, however.

An OCE aide declined to comment for this article.