Is House Ethics Office Endangered In New Congress?

The House created the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2007, as a prod for the slow-moving Ethics Committee. Republicans didn't like it at the time, and when control of the House changes hands next month, they will be faced with the question of whether to keep it.

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When control of the House of Representatives changes hands next month, much of what the Democrats have done could be undone. One initiative of the Democratic majority: the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog for the House. Republicans didn't like it when it was created and they now they have the power to do something about it. NPR's Peter Overby explains.

PETER OVERBY: There's a case from the Office of Congressional Ethics going on right now. Ten-term California Democrat Maxine Waters is fighting back against allegations brought by the House Ethics Committee.

But that case didn't start with the Ethics Committee or the 10 legislators who serve there. It started at the Office of Congressional Ethics, a place where only former lawmakers and outsiders may serve and where anybody, not just members of Congress, may lodge a complaint. No wonder so many House members hate it.

Mr. CRAIG HOLMAN (Lobbyist, Public Citizen): Just take a look at what's happened since OCE was created two years ago.

OVERBY: That's Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. And he's got a list to point to. The Office of Congressional Ethics has looked into 69 cases and sent 13 of them to the House Ethics Committee for enforcement action. All that without subpoena power, which the House decided to keep for itself. Again, Craig Holman...

Mr. HOLMAN: Now, that's more than the House Ethics Committee has done in the entire decade preceding that.

OVERBY: Still, despite that track record, or because of it, the Office of Congressional Ethics has had a rocky road. When it was created in 2008, all but four Republicans voted against it. Here's House Minority Leader John Boehner in 2008.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): I do think that the proposal that we have tonight before us is partisan. I don't think it'll work, and I don't think it's in the best interest of the American people or this institution.

LEWIS: Now that Boehner is about to become speaker of the House, a spokesman says there's no decision on whether to keep OCE. It's up to Boehner and the rest of the leadership, because the office wasn't created by law, only by House rules. And new rules get voted on when the new Republican-controlled House sets up shop January 5th.

If Republicans decide to kill or constrain the office, Democrats couldn't do much about it. And what's more, they might not want to. The hostility toward OCE is bipartisan.

Last spring, 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all Democrats, signed a petition to limit OCE's powers. Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson pointed to data showing that CBC members have been targeted in a disproportionate number of OCE cases.

Representative EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON (Democrat, Texas): There are no other groups in the Congress that have had the attack as much as Congressional Black Caucus members.

LEWIS: Johnson was speaking on the program "Washington Watch" with Roland Martin. But now a bipartisan assortment of good government groups is mobilizing to protect the office. Tom Fitton is president of the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch.

Mr. TOM FITTON (President, Judicial Watch): The insider party concerns that individual members have about the way the process works is the American people just see a corrupt Congress protecting its own.

LEWIS: And concern is spreading to some Tea Party groups. Chris Littleton is with the Ohio Liberty Council. He says abolishing or crippling the congressional ethics office would be a disturbing message to come from the new Republican majority.

Mr. CHRIS LITTLETON (Ohio Liberty Council): You know, the problem in D.C. is that they value self-preservation above anything else. And D.C. has effectively turned into a cesspool for the political class. We shouldn't be doing anything that is inhibiting transparency for the American people.

LEWIS: Some of the watchdog groups warn that the inhibition, if it comes, could happen later this year. Because the Office of Congressional Ethics not only needs to be re-established under the rules, it also needs to be funded.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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