POLITICS

Congressman Thinks Ethics Office Too Tough, So He Tries To Cut It

It's the only independent agency keeping an eye on the U.S. House.

WASHINGTON -- A vote to slash funding for the independent office that reviews and investigates allegations of misconduct by members of Congress and their staff failed in the House on Friday.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) was originally pushing to completely defund the Office of Congressional Ethics, eliminating its roughly $1.4 million budget. He settled instead for a vote on an amendment to stop a $190,000 increase in OCE funding. That measure went down to defeat, 270 to 137.

Last year, the ethics office looked into allegations of misconduct by one of Pearce’s staffers. That didn’t sit well with the congressman, despite the fact that the charges were ultimately dismissed. When the ethics office dismisses allegations, they remain confidential, so no one likely would have known had Pearce not made them public in his attempts to restrict the agency's authority and cut its funding.

Pearce said his amendment was meant to “give notice to OCE that we are watching what you’re doing.”

In an brief interview with The Huffington Post after the vote, the congressman argued that the ethics office is “duplicative” and “not transparent.” But he wouldn’t say his attempts to rein in the agency were in direct response to its investigation of his staffer.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) criticized Pearce's efforts on the chamber floor. “The OCE is crucial to ensuring accountability and transparency in this body, and any attempts to cut its budget would only serve to erode our constituents' trust and faith in Congress," she said.

Asked if any agency at all should be tasked with holding members of Congress accountable for potential ethics violations, Pearce pointed to the House Ethics Committee. That panel is run by the lawmakers themselves.

“We have the House Ethics Committee, and if we’re not willing to do our job, then shame on us,” he said.

Friday's vote was not Pearce's first unsuccessful stab at the Office of Congressional Ethics. Last year, he tried to restrict its powers by adding stringent new language to the rules governing both the OCE and the House Ethics Committee. The changes would have reaffirmed that those being investigated by the OCE can be represented by a lawyer -- as the rules already allowed -- and would have prohibited either entity from taking action that would deny a person the "right to protection provided under the Constitution."

The Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit government ethics group, issued a statement denouncing Pearce's latest effort. 

"Rep. Pearce’s motivation is clear," the group said. "He has had several interactions with the OCE and this effort is nothing more than sour grapes."

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