This November, the future House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) rode the Tea Party rhetoric to power, promising to gut “business as usual” on Capitol Hill. Touting an earmark ban and public access to bills as clear moves toward transparency, Boehner seemed demonstrably clear on another accountability issue – congressional ethics. “I think the American people expect that their members of Congress should be held to a high ethical standard,” he said in August.
In spite of that expectation, Boehner is threatening to axe the Office of Congressional ethics. Established in March of 2008 after the Jack Abramoff scandal, the Office of Congressional Ethics is responsible for “launching investigations of wrongdoings by House Members” in order to “stiffen the spine of the House ethics committee.” Operating as an inspector general of sorts, the OCE has “won praise for reviving the House’s notoriously moribund and secretive ethics process.”
Despite strong conservative support for OCE, “GOP leaders are gearing up to kill the fledgling” OCE. In doing so, Boehner is clashing head-on with the rhetoric of many newly-elected Republicans and the driving force behind them — the Tea Party. In Boehner’s home-state, the Tea Party has not only noticed this fact, but has issued him a warning:
The Ohio Liberty Council, the main umbrella organization for 58 Tea Party groups in the state, supports efforts to strengthen the OCE and is warning House GOP leaders that any attempt to weaken it will upset Tea Party activists.
“I[f] they move in the opposite direction of transparency that this office provides, I think we will be very upset about that,” said Chris Littleton, president of the Ohio Liberty Council and the Cincinnati Tea Party. “Symbolically, it’s a huge problem for them … they should be as transparent as they can be. Any opposition to that would be inappropriate on their part.”
Boehner’s antipathy for the OCE is no secret. He voted against its creation in 2008 and has repeatedly questioned its value. Asked whether Boehner would “heed the call to strengthen, not shutter, the OCE,” his spokesman Michael Steel said “we haven’t made a decision” at this time, which, as the Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel notes, “appears to leave open the possibility that it may be defunded.” Indeed, the Sunlight Foundation, which is working with the GOP transition leaders on their transparency agenda, said GOP leaders “won’t vote publicly to kill the OCE but will simply quietly defund it next year.” As the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington notes, Boehner is “an establishment, country-club Republican trying to embrace the tea party folks without making any of the changes they require.”
As a New York Times editorial notes, “outraged taxpayers who voted against business as usual in Washington” will undoubtedly be “dumbfounded” if Boehner weakens or eliminates this linchpin of congressional ethics. The destruction of the OCE will signal “a retreat to the days of good old boy self-policing and no real accountability.” To the Tea Party, that’s decidedly off message.