Setting the rules for his GOP-controlled House, incoming Speaker John Boehner has preserved the Office of Congressional Ethics—the independent investigative panel that has been criticized for overreaching by members of both parties. Good government groups and other watchdogs had warned that the new GOP majority might try to kill off the OCE, which was created in 2008 as part of the Democrats’ sweeping ethics reforms. Though Boehner and other Republicans opposed the OCE from the start, they were joined more recently by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who believed their members were unfairly targeted by the independent panel, which can use public—even anonymous—complaints to initiate investigations.
But despite the bipartisan opposition to the OCE, Republicans “found it untenable to gut an ethics office while calling for greater accountability in Congress,” writes Politico‘s Jonathan Allen, and the House GOP has preserved the rules governing the panel so far. There’s still a chance that the OCE could end up being undermined during the appropriations process—lawmakers will have to approve funding for staffing the panel, and cutting off the OCE’s purse strings would be an easy way to defang the office without eliminating it entirely. But the GOP may have also decided that gutting the office isn’t worth the risk of a public backlash. Also not lost on the GOP is the fact that Democrats have been the main targets of the office’s investigations.
Boehner certainly wants to send the message that the GOP is tough on ethics: one of the new rules bars former legislators who become registered lobbyists from access to the House gym, to clamp down on informal wheeling and dealing. The party has also waged its tea party-backed war on earmarks under the auspices of cracking down on favor-trading and other blights of Beltway culture.
But though the pro-ethics rhetoric has flown freely, real solutions are much more murky, given all of the workarounds that are available: the GOP has welcomed influence-peddling through outside spending groups, incoming freshmen are bringing scores of ex-lobbyists on staff, and earmarks are a miniscule portion of government appropriations and designated spending on pet projects. Meanwhile, even if the OCE is preserved, the House Ethics Committee—the internal body that actually doles out punishments—is in complete turmoil over the impending trial of Rep. Maxine Water (D-Calif.), and Boehner has yet to indicate whether such investigations with be conducted with the same fervor in the next Congress.