WASHINGTON -- An independent office created four years ago to policecongressional behavior will lose its investigative powers unless Houseleaders move quickly to name new board members -- the latest potentialthreat to the watchdog office.
The terms of four of the sixmembers of the Office of Congressional Ethics' board are set to expirewhen the new Congress convenes in January. Neither House Speaker JohnBoehner, R-Ohio, nor Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California hasannounced their replacements -- despite mounting pressure from outsidecongressional watchdogs to retain the office's powers. The office'sinvestigators cannot start probes without board approval.
"What abeautiful way for Congress to kill the program without going on recordas actually having done so," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, one ofseven watchdog groups planning a public campaign next week to push foraction.
In an e-mail, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill saidDemocrats are "firmly committed" to the ethics office and "replacementswill be named at the appropriate time."
Aides to Boehner did notreturn e-mails and telephone calls this week from USA TODAY, and Holmansaid his repeated entreaties to Boehner's staff have been ignored.
TheOffice of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, is the first independent groupto oversee ethics in the U.S. House of Representatives and wasestablished during Pelosi's tenure as House speaker. The goal: to cleanup what Pelosi called Washington's "culture of corruption" in theaftermath of the scandal surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (In2006, Abramoff admitted providing gifts to lawmakers and aides inexchange for official actions. He went to prison for his actions.)
Thequestions about OCE's future come amid frantic negotiations by topWashington officials to avert a "fiscal cliff" of massive spending cutsand automatic tax increases. Outside advocates, such as Holman, worrythe office could die quietly during the fiscal debate.
The officehas been unpopular with some lawmakers. Boehner, who kept the officeintact when he assumed the speakership in 2011, was among the 182 Housemembers who voted against creating it. Last year, North CarolinaDemocrat Mel Watt led an unsuccessful effort to slash 40% of OCE's $1.5million annual budget, saying its work duplicates activities the ethicscommittee should handle. Watt, who had been the target of an OCEinvestigation that was later dismissed by the office, argued the moneywould be better spent on deficit reduction.
In 2010, 20 membersof the Congressional Black Caucus unsuccessfully sought to restrict theOCE's power to launch probes and publicly release its findings.
"Nobodylikes to lose control over their own careers, lives and reputations,"said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "There's alwaysresistance to an independent operation." Ornstein, a longtimecongressional scholar, advocated the OCE's creation and called itscurrent status "more precarious than I would like."
Since itsinception in 2008, the OCE has launched 101 investigations of lawmakersand their aides and recommended that the House Ethics Committee - madeup of 10 Republican and Democratic House members - take further actionin 35 cases. Only a handful, including a probe into corporate-sponsoredtravel to the Caribbean by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., have resultedin formal disciplinary action. No independent ethics office exists inthe Senate.
The results of OCE investigations are publiclyreleased - even when lawmakers on the ethics committee are stillweighing final action or opt to dismiss allegations of wrongdoing. Thereports have proved politically damaging, and the office's critics argueit unfairly tarnishes reputations.
A 300-page, OCE reportreleased last year found "probable cause" that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.,D-Ill., had directed a supporter to raise money in 2008 for IllinoisGov. Rod Blagojevich in exchange for appointing Jackson to the Senateseat vacated by President Obama. Jackson, who has been treated forbipolar disorder, resigned from the House last month amid the ethicsprobe and a separate criminal inquiry into the use of campaign funds.
OCE officials declined to comment on the board appointments.
In an e-mail, Omar Ashmawy, a former U.S. Air Force judge advocategeneral who heads the OCE staff, praised the House for creating theoffice. "The last four years has shown the process they put in placeworks," he said.