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High Hopes but Few Powers: House Finally Appoints Members To New Office of Congressional Ethics*

July 24, 2008

High Hopes but Few Powers: House Finally Appoints Members To New Office of Congressional Ethics*

Statement of Craig Holman, Governmental Affairs Lobbyist, Public Citizen

Public Citizen welcomes today’s appointment by the House leadership of six board members to the new Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a panel designed to supplement the work of the notoriously ineffective House ethics committee. However, it is troubling that nearly all the appointees are former members of Congress with close ties to those whom they will oversee. It is also worrisome that the panel has been given very little authority to conduct thorough ethics investigations, making the success or failure of the office fully dependent on the character and dynamism of its board.

The fact that the OCE is the first congressional oversight body not composed of current legislators or lobbyists certainly represents a major step toward effective ethics regulation. But we have several objections to its structure.

First, the OCE lacks genuine investigative authority because it cannot compel witnesses to testify. Without subpoena power, people under investigation can brush off requests for documents and refuse to be interviewed with impunity. Further, the OCE cannot even offer recommendations to the ethics committee – it merely can compile information and reports. It is an ethics office handcuffed.

The OCE’s future record will ride on the ability of its board to make it work. Public Citizen hopes these former lawmakers can rise above their preexisting loyalties, as well as the limits on the agency’s authority, and use their positions effectively to assist the traditionally moribund House ethics committee.

*The three Democrats are former Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.), Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (D-Calif.) and Karan English (D-Ariz.). They are joined by three Republicans, former Reps. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), former House Chief Administrative Officer Jay Eagan and Allison Hayward, former chief of staff for FEC Commissioner Brad Smith. Former Reps. Abner Mikva (D-Ill.) and Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) will serve as alternates. The OCE can initiate queries into potential ethics violations and send findings to the House ethics committee for final action. OCE board members will serve part-time, supported by full-time staff. They are required to annually disclose all financial assets and may not seek congressional election for three years after their term expires. Board members will serve for a maximum of two consecutive Congresses or eight total years.