Speaker Pelosi Open to Reducing Power of House Ethics Board

Pelosi and Clyburn photoHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has signified that she’s open to reigning in the power of an independent congressional ethics board, even though she urged the creation of the board in 2008, reported The Hill.

Two years ago, House Speaker Pelosi strongly backed the establishment of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a bipartisan board made up of private citizens, saying that it would “bring an additional measure of transparency to the ethics enforcement process.” But at a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus – a group which wants to “reform” the OCE – Pelosi and House Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), in photo, reportedly indicated that they were willing to reconsider changing some of the OCE’s rules.

According to The Hill, sources in the room said Speaker Pelosi and Rep. Clyburn were open to reducing the OCE’s power because the board has produced some unforseen outcomes.

Nineteen members of the Congressional Black Caucus, led by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), are pushing legislation that would restrict the OCE from releasing the results of its investigations in cases that the House Ethics Committee decides have no merit. The OCE would also be barred from initiating investigations of its own, and would instead have to wait for a complaint to be filed by a citizen with personal knowledge of the alleged malfeasance.

The OCE has investigated at least eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus over the past year, and referred four of them to the House Ethics Committee. Three of the members’ charges were subsequently dismissed by the House Ethics Committee, but Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) was found culpable of accepting corporate-funded trips and “admonished” by the Committee.

In the Rangel case, OCE opened an investigation after news reports of NLPC’s exposé of a 2008 St. Maarten’s trip. NLPC President Peter Flaherty attended the event and took photographs and made audio recordings demonstrating the corporate sponsorship.

While the House Ethics Committee is staffed with congressional members and can conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses, making official rulings and recommend penalties for violations, the OCE has far less power. It is only able to conduct investigations and refer cases to other boards or agencies for further examination.

The OCE can act as recourse for continuing investigations that have been dismissed by the House Ethics Committee. Last February, the House Ethics Committee cleared all seven congressional members accused of trading campaign donations for earmarks in the PMA pay-to-play scheme. However, the OCE only cleared five of the lawmakers in its own investigation of the case, and recommended in May that the Justice Department conduct a further review.

Ethics watchdogs groups are concerned that weakening the OCE even further will diminish ethics enforcement in congress. A coalition of these organizations has called on Speaker Pelosi to oppose the Congressional Black Caucus’s proposed bill.

“Your leadership in the establishment of the OCE has resulted in a marked improvement in the House ethics enforcement process,” wrote Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, the Public Citizen and U.S PIRG in a letter to the Speaker. “We strongly urge you to continue your strong support for the OCE and to oppose any efforts to weaken or undermine this important Office.”

Alana Goodman is NLPC’s Capitol Hill Reporter