Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), with the help of Republicans leaders, is launching a sneak attack on the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the only quasi-independent ethics watchdog policing the behavior of members of Congress.
Watt, a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus, may be looking for some retribution against the office for investigating him last year. Along with a bipartisan group of several other members, Watt was part of a wide-ranging OCE probe into the propriety of holding fundraising events with big players in the financial sector within days — or even on the very day — of a vote on the Wall Street reform bill. He and the other members were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing but not before the investigation leaked to the press and he and the other members made “under investigation” headlines.
Watt, who has not be shy about his disgust for the OCE even before he found himself under its microscope, has offered an amendment to the legislative branch appropriations bill, the House is considering Thursday with a vote expected Friday morning, that would slash funding to the OCE by 40 percent, some $619,000. The Republican leadership, which controls which amendments can reach the floor and harbors its own animosity towards the OCE, allowed Watts’ measure to be considered.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, made up of a board of mostly former members of Congress, conducts initial investigations into complaints and allegations against House members and gives recommendations to the full Ethics Committee for further review or dismissal.
The stealth attack on the OCE has been six months in the making. Watchdogs were bracing for the defunding move ever since the GOP regained the majority since the OCE was a creation of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) who pushed it through the House against the will of many in her own party in 2008. Pelosi, who had just won control of the House in part because of the ethics failings of Republicans, was trying to burnish the House’s reputation after the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, as well as the flare-up over ex-Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-FL) inappropriate electronic communications with former House pages.
Unfortunately for Watt, the timing of his attack on the OCE couldn’t be worse. The Ethics Committee on Wednesday for the first time in its history was forced to hire a special prosecutor to investigate itself for allegations that it grossly mishandled charges against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). All week watchdogs have been calling for strengthening, not weakening the OCE, in response to the ethics panel’s implosion.
“Given the news that the House Ethics Committee has all but ceased to function, there could not be a worse or more ill-timed amendment,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Apparently, Rep. Watt - like Rep. Marcia Fudge before him - is attempting to seek retribution against the OCE for having the temerity to investigate him.”
The Sunlight Foundation has been calling for its “already puny” funding to be doubled, according to a post on their website. On Thursday morning noted congressional scholar Norm Ornstein penned an editorial in Roll Call that calls for House leaders to strengthen the OCE in response to the Waters imbroglio.
“Now is not the time to back away from the ethics process,” the Sunlight Foundation wrote in its blog. “This amendment, which is second in line for consideration, should be defeated. With everything that’s going on, I can’t imagine the House is willing to open itself up to the incredible amounts of criticism it would receive if it cut OCE’s budget.”
A coalition of watchdog groups sent out an emergency letter to House members Thursday afternoon strongly urging them to vote down the Watt amendment.
“The recent dysfunctional performance by the House Ethics Committee has only served to reinforce the critically important role being played by the OCE in the House ethics enforcement process,” they wrote. “The OCE, under bipartisan leadership, has done an outstanding job in carrying out its mission to help protect the integrity of the House. There is absolutely no basis for reducing OCE’s funding.”
The letter was signed by representatives from CREW, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S PIRG.
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