Politics & Government

Bipartisan House vote defeats bid to defund ethics office

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Friday roundly rejected a move to cut the budget of the Office of Congressional Ethics by 40 percent.

On a bipartisan vote of 302-102, the House rejected the amendment offered by Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat who was investigated last year by the office.

"Today, lawmakers stood up for ethics by rejecting Watt's misguided amendment," Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, said in a statement. "Now lawmakers should take the additional step of strengthening the OCE by giving it subpoena power. The only lawmakers with anything to fear from an empowered OCE are those who have done something wrong."

Although Watt and seven of his colleagues were cleared of wrongdoing, in a letter Thursday to his colleagues Watt called the panel's procedures "unfair and abusive" and said that the more than $600,000 he proposed to cut from the office's budget "wastes taxpayer money."

Watt also said in the letter that he and his colleagues "incurred substantial expenses and experienced unjustified damage to their reputations in the middle of an election, and one of them actually lost his campaign."

Watt was referring to former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who lost to a tea party-backed Republican in a tough year for Democrats.

On Friday, Watt said the amendment wasn't a personal retaliation against the ethics office.

"I wouldn't call it a 'personal vendetta,'" he said. "But I also wouldn't deny that my experiences had something to do with my view of this agency."

In 2008, Watt was one of the lawmakers who voted to create Office of Congressional Ethics. There was a widespread sentiment that the House Ethics Committee wasn't doing its job.

The ethics office acts as a sort of grand jury, making preliminary inquiries into ethics allegations against House members. If it finds reason to act, it refers cases to the House Ethics Committee.

Since its inception, the ethics office has reviewed 82 ethics complaints and sent 26 on to the ethics panel for action.

Supporters say the OCE has spurred the House panel to act. Since the OCE began, the Ethics Committee has taken twice as many disciplinary actions against members than it did in the preceding decade.

In his letter to colleagues, Watt calls the office redundant, since the Ethics Committee has similar responsibilities. Sloan said that's "laughable" given that the Ethics Committee is itself under investigation over its handling of an inquiry of Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.

Watt's case stemmed from a 2009 Washington fundraiser. Two days later, Watt withdrew an amendment that would have put auto dealerships under the jurisdiction of a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A member of the Financial Services Committee, he got contributions from several financial firms generally opposed to the new bureau.

The OCE unanimously dismissed the charges. Watt said the damage was already done.

"You can't imagine the venomous letters I got calling me a crook," he said. "You only have one reputation in life."

Watchdog groups say the Office of Congressional Ethics needs more funding, not less. Daniel Schuman, the policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, said the panel is "underfunded, under-resourced and doesn't have enough power to do its job."

"Firing the watchdog doesn't make the watchdog go away," Schuman said. "It just makes it angry."

Watt said he recommended changes to the ethics office in a March letter to House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Neither responded.

"I would have been comfortable to do away with the whole agency," Watt said. "But the primary objective ... was to get this out into a public discussion."

Friday's vote brought unusual alliances: 73 Republicans joined Watt and 27 other Democrats in supporting the budget cut. Most Republicans and an overwhelming number of Democrats voted against it.

Watt, who won 64 percent of the votes in the 12th Congressional District last year, suggested that some members made the politically safe vote.

"I can't tell you the number of people who came up to me and said, 'I can't vote with you but I agree with you,'" Watt said.

"It's people who knew the right thing to do and said, 'I'm going to take the politically expedient route and vote the other way,' that gives our institution a bad name," he said.

(Tate reported from Washington; Morrill, of the Charlotte Observer, from Charlotte, N.C.)


Watt's Dear Colleague letter


Ethics office examining eight lawmakers over fundraising

Mel Watt cleared by panel