Pearce says Republicans weren’t trying to ‘gut’ House ethics agency

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News organizations, Democrats and others accused Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives this week of trying to “gut” the independent agency that polices House ethics, but U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce takes issue with that characterization.

Steve Pearce

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M.

“The amendment was not a ‘gut,'” said Todd Willens, chief of staff for Pearce, R-N.M. “Steve is in favor of changes that strengthen the ethics of the House and allow the committees to operate according to their stated missions. This amendment struck that balance.”

Pearce was one of the Republicans in favor of the proposal, which would have moved the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) under the House Ethics Committee, bar the agency from investigating anonymous tips, and keep some of the agency’s work secret. The New York Times reported that the changes would “effectively kill” OCE by taking away “both power and independence from an investigative body, and give lawmakers more control over internal inquiries.”

Pearce has taken on OCE before. In January 2015 the House approved a change proposed by Pearce that said the House Ethics Committee and and OCE could not “take any action that would deny any person any right or protection provided under the Constitution of the United States.”

Pearce proposed the change because a former staffer, Kenny Rogers, “came under investigation from OCE after a federal employee filed a false claim looking for retribution after a dispute,” The Hill wrote at the time, quoting Willens.

“Willens said Rogers, who no longer works for Pearce, was treated aggressively because he refused to turn over documents,” The Hill reported in 2015.

Pearce, Willens said, was “not on a crusade,” but was aiming to protect congressional employees from unfair treatment. “If OCE repeats the way it treated our employee — now it’s a violation of House rules,” Willens said at the time.

Pearce also unsuccessfully proposed defunding OCE in 2016.

This week, Republicans voted in secret, without opportunity for public scrutiny or debate, to approve the sweeping changes to OCE, which were proposed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia. Politico reported the inside story:

A number of Hill Republicans have been seeking to curb the powers of the ethics watchdog for years. Privately, they say the office is too aggressive, pursues baseless anonymous tips and has become an unfair burden, both financially and politically, on lawmakers. Each time members approached ex-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) about the matter, he deferred, saying this is something that should be done a bipartisan basis. But bipartisan reforms never materialized.

So Goodlatte, backed by a group of lawmakers who felt they had been wrongly accused by the OCE, devised a plan to rein in the office. They worked in secret for weeks, making sure word didn’t leak out to Democrats or the media. Then, just before House Republicans met to approve their rules package for the new Congress, they unveiled their amendment to scale back the powers of the OCE and put it under the House Ethics Committee’s jurisdiction.

Ultimately, the effort to restructure OCE failed. House leadership removed the amendment from the package of House rules approved publicly on the opening day of the session after a bipartisan firestorm of criticism that came from President-elect Donald Trump and others.

Politico and Vanity Fair mentioned Pearce among those who, in the words of Politico, “vocally supported” the amendment to restructure OCE. But Pearce didn’t lead the effort, Willens said. Had he led it, “he would have likely objected to the House leadership’s striking the provision from the rules package, which would have forced the House to keep it in,” Willens said.

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Democrats were quick to hammer Pearce and House Republicans who supported the changes to OCE.

“If Steve Pearce wants to eliminate the office that holds members of Congress accountable, we can’t help but wonder what Steve Pearce has to hide,” said Debra Haaland, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico.

“With a Trump presidency on the horizon, oversight is now more important than ever, and Congressman Pearce embarrasses our state when he takes action that appears to be purely self interested,” Haaland said.

Democrats were fairly united this week in criticizing Republicans for the attempt to make changes to the independent ethics agency, which was created in 2008 following the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. But, as The Hill reported this week, “Lawmakers in both parties have griped about the OCE since its creation in 2008, saying the office’s powers are overly broad and can be used for partisan purposes.”

From that article:

And while Democrats gleefully attacked Republicans Tuesday for seeking to change the OCE, they too have chafed at its approach to investigations.

“There’s absolutely no need for this group,” said retired Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) in 2013. He had been a subject of an OCE investigation into his congressional travel.

In 2011, former Democratic Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina introduced an amendment to cut OCE’s funding by 40 percent. He had been part of a group of lawmakers that had been investigated by the OCE for holding fundraisers before a key financial reform vote. (The OCE eventually dropped the inquiry.)

Watt, who is now the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, at the time said the OCE is “unfair and sometimes abusive” to lawmakers.

So if the proposal from House Republicans wasn’t a “gut,” as news organizations have overwhelmingly called it, what was it? I asked Willens. He pointed me to what he called “key points specific to the Goodlatte amendment:”

1) The Office of Congressional Ethics needs reform to protect due process and ensure it is operating according to its stated mission.
a. Over the last eight years, needed ethics reforms have previously failed as a result of the House putting ‘image’ ahead of rights provided under the Constitution.
2) The House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and OCE will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress.
3) OCE will continue to be governed by a bipartisan independent outside board with ultimate decision-making authority.
4) The OCE will continue to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public.
5) OCE will investigate thoroughly and independently, and the outside board will still decide whether or not evidence exists to warrant a full investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

Willens also pointed to these “facts about the amendment and changes:”

1) The bipartisan, evenly-divided House Ethics Committee will now have oversight of the complaints office.
a. But the Office is not controlled by the Committee
b. The House Ethics Committee is not to interfere with the OCE’s investigations or prevent it from doing its job.
2) Provide greater certainty as to the commencement and termination of any review, including timely notice to the subject and Committee on Ethics.
3) Require rules changes to better safeguard the exercise of due process rights of both subject and witness.
4) Rename the “Office of Congressional Ethics” the “Office of Congressional Complaint Review.”
5) Provide protections against disclosures to the public or other government entities.
6) Require that any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics.
7) Bar the consideration of anonymous complaints.
8) Limit the jurisdiction of the Office to the last three Congresses to conform to the statute of limitations for the Committee on Ethics.

Goodlatte criticized the media in a statement after his amendment died.

“I am wholly disappointed that these important reforms to strengthen due process rights and the mission of the OCE did not move forward,” he said. “Gross misrepresentation by opponents of my amendment, and the media willing to go along with this agenda, resulted in a flurry of misconceptions and unfounded claims about the true purpose of this amendment.”

He said the OCE “has a serious and important role in the House, and my amendment would have done nothing to impede their work or lessen the high ethical standards to which all members of Congress should be held.”

Now that the package of rules for the current session is in place, Willens said, “the issue is done and it is time to get on to other important items awaiting congressional action.”

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