Bipartisan House vote defeats bid to defund ethics office

WASHINGTON — Capping a week when Congress could agree on almost nothing else, the House of Representatives today soundly defeated an effort to cut the budget of the Office of Congressional Ethics by 40 percent.

On a bipartisan vote of 102-302, 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," said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, 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 to his colleagues Thursday, Watt called the panel's procedures "unfair and abusive" and said the more than $600,000 he proposes 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. Watt, however, comfortably held on to his district, which winds from Charlotte toward Greensboro, N.C., with 64 percent of the vote.

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.”

Watt also thinks more members agree with him than today’s vote would otherwise indicate.

“I can’t tell you the number of people who came up to me (after the vote) 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.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics is a citizen panel formed three years ago to make preliminary inquiries into ethics allegations in the House. If it finds substantial reason to believe allegations are true, it may refer the cases to the House ethics committee.

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.

"It's funny that at least some folks are embracing the House Ethics Committee as a solution to the House ethics problems, considering the news that's been coming out of there lately," said Daniel Schuman, the policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation.

The inquiry of Watt stemmed from a fundraiser he held Dec. 9, 2009, at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington. The event took place two days before Watt withdrew an amendment that would have placed auto dealerships under the jurisdiction of the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

Watt is a member of the House Financial Services Committee, and several financial firms made contributions to his campaign. The industry fought hard against the consumer panel's creation.

The ethics panel unanimously recommended dismissal of the allegations against Watt.

"There is not substantial reason to believe that Rep. Watt solicited or accepted contributions in a manner which gave the appearance that special treatment or access was provided to donors or that contributions were linked to an official act," the ruling said.

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

Sloan said the House ethics committee's investigative power should be taken away and given to the independent panel.

"Why be a fan of something that never comes down on anybody for anything?" she asked.

Schuman said efforts such as Watt's won't help make Congress more transparent.

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

(Tate reported from Washington, Morrill from Charlotte.)