An ironic twist for Congressional ethics

A curious benefit of the new GOP leadership is the continuation of an independent watchdog agency with plenty of bark and bite.

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A curious benefit of the new GOP leadership is the continuation of an independent watchdog agency with plenty of bark and bite.

Curiously, the new GOP-led House has decided to keep the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent agency that was started by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and sharply opposed at its birth by the new speaker, John Boehner. How come?

The story begins with a Northwest angle. The last time the GOP controlled the House, Eastern Washington Rep. Doc Hastings was the oh-so-casual chair of the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct, which meant that allegations of ethical misbehavior by members, particularly Republicans, died an obscure death in Doc's committee. Behavior like that, and public outrage, led to Pelosi's courageous idea of an independent watchdog.

The OCE has an eight-member bipartisan board, mostly former members of Congress and appointed by the Speaker and the minority leader of the House. Its co-chairs are former Democratic Congressman David Skaggs of Boulder and Porter Goss, a Florida Republican and former director of the CIA.

When suggestions of wrong doing reach the OCE, its board can instruct its investigative staff to look into the details under strict confidentiality. These probes often conclude there is no reason for further action. If the case merits further investigation, requiring votes each time by the bipartisan board, it digs deeper and may refer its findings the the House Ethics Committee and publish a report on its findings. All it takes to start an investigation is two votes from the board, one from each party, but it takes votes of the full board to look more deeply into these incidents.

There have been 20 referrals published on the OCE website, with doubtless quite a few other investigations that cleared the party in question or at least decided there was insufficient reason to look more deeply into the allegation. (OCE can investigate members and also staff members.) One of the published reports, recommending dismissal of the allegations, concerned Congressman Norm Dicks, who was accused of soliciting contributions in connection with Defense earmarks. It makes for fascinating reading about this murky area, including Dicks' stout defense of his staff's actions in handling these requests, and the judicious and thorough  manner of the investigation.

The leverage is that if the House Committee fails to address the referred matter, or buries it over time, the OCE has gone public with its findings. This has put a lot of backbone into the House, and there have been a rash of ethics cases in the years since OCE started in 2008. Probably, if OCE is allowed to continue its bipartisan but tough policing for two or three more Congresses, the dirty stables will be greatly cleansed.

Along with the cases has come a rash of complaints, particularly from the Black Congressional Caucus. At least eight black lawmakers have come under the OCE microscope, notably Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California. The caucus had been moving to cripple the agency, feeling that its members, and Democrats, had been unfairly singled out. Other Congress members have privately groused that once the OCE starts an investigation, even if it exonerates the subject, that member's career is put in great jeopardy, given the take-no-prisoners style of today's campaigning.

Had the Democrats retained the House majority, but with a smaller margin, observers expected that the Black Caucus could have withheld support for reelecting Pelosi as speaker, unless she shut down the OCE or arranged for its neutering. Other members would have blamed Pelosi's OCE for all the carnage in the election. But killing OCE would have been ugly. The Democrats would look weak on the touchy issue of policing its members, and an effort to geld the agency would have led to resignations at OCE and loud protests from good-government groups who had pushed for the creation of the watchdog group.

The irony is, the OCE only would have survived if the GOP took control. Even so, observers are mildly surprised that Speaker Boehner decided to keep OCE going, largely intact, saying there would be no change in mandate or mission for the next two years at least. We'll see how well the GOP stays the course once some of its business-cozy members come under the probes of the OCE.


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