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Future looks iffy for Speaker Nancy Pelosi's House ethics office, thanks in part to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

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Photo - Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, poses for a photo in her office in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chris Greenberg/Bloomberg News)
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, poses for a photo in her office in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chris Greenberg/Bloomberg News)
News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock

Falling off the fiscal cliff isn't the only dangerous political precipice facing Congress. There's also an ethics cliff.

The eight-member Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) could lose the quorum required for it to conduct its work as four members' terms end December 31.

Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi each nominate three OCE members and one alternate. Boehner has promised to announce his nominees before the deadline, but watchdog groups are surprised and concerned that Pelosi is being coy about when she will do so.

Pelosi proposed OCE's creation in 2008 after promising during the 2006 campaign to "drain the swamp" of corruption under the Republican majority that then controlled Congress.

Current OCE members include chairman Porter Goss, the former CIA Director and Republican House member from Florida, and co-chairman David Skaggs, a former Democratic congressman from Colorado.

Other members include former California Democratic Rep. Yvonne Burke, Jay Eagen, former Chief Administrative Officer in the House, former Arizona Democratic Rep. Karan English, former Minnesota Republican Rep. Bill Frenzel, Allison Hayward, vice-president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics and a former George Mason University Law Professor, and retired federal judge Abner Mikva, a former Minnesota Democratic representative.

The terms of Burke, Eagen, English and Hayward expire at the end of this month.

House Speaker John Boehner's office told The Washington Examiner that he will nominate new board members before New Year's Day. A Pelosi spokesman said she will also submit nominees, but refused to say when.

A bipartisan coalition of 10 watchdog groups encouraged Boehner and Pelosi in a December 12 letter to make "timely" nominations. But there is concern that OCE's future existence could be at stake.

"I think both parties would like nothing better than for the OCE to expire without either side being held responsible for the office's demise," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and one of letter authors, told the Examiner.

Sloan is disturbed by Pelosi's coyness. "I'm not satisfied because we have no announcement. Look at the date. It does nothing if she appoints people in June," Sloan said.

Since October 2009, OCE has referred 32 cases to the House Ethics Committee, including 23 involving Democrats and 11 Republicans.

A major sticking point is that half of the Democratic cases involve African American lawmakers.

"Within the rank and file of her caucus, there is a great deal of dissension about the value of OCE," Public Citizen lobbyist Craig Holman told the Examiner. His group also signed the December 12 letter.

Some African American legislators charge OCE's enforcement is racially "disproportionate." OCE has investigated prominent African American legislators, including representatives Charles Rangel of New York, Maxine Waters of California and Jesse Jackson, Jr., of Illinois.

And eight African American lawmakers were cited for a Congressional Black Caucus junket to the Caribbean paid for by several corporations, including Citicorp.

The OCE criticized Jackson's links to convicted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's attempt to "sell" President Obama's former Senate seat. Jackson resigned last month from the House, citing mental health reasons.

Rangel lost the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee following an OCE investigation and, while Waters was ultimately acquitted, the OCE probe dogged her for three years.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, another African American House member, introduced legislation in 2010 to gut OCE's power after it criticized her chief of staff for the Caribbean junket.

Rep. Mel Watt, D-NC, sponsored an amendment in 2011 to slash OCE's budget by 40%. A CREW blog post at the time noted OCE had also criticized Watt for the Caribbean junket, and that his amendment was "a personal vendetta."

Fudge and Watt both failed in their attacks on OCE.

OCE also has experienced tension with the older House Ethics Committee. Government reform groups considered the ethics committee to be a secret, closed-door operation that moves slowly, if at all, against House members.

"The ethics committee was initially very angry with OCE," Holman said.

"They just didn't like the fact that there was this other agency that was pursuing investigations when it came to ethics complaints and made it impossible for the ethics committee to sweep ethics complaints under the rug," he said.

Republicans - including, for example, Rep, Tom Price of Georgia and John Campbell of California - were admonished by OCE for seeking campaign contributions from financial services executives while financial reform bills were before the House.

Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team.

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