January 4, 2017

What is the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE)?

Holland & Knight Eyes on Washington Blog
Christopher DeLacy

On Jan. 3, 2017, the first day of the 115th Congress, a somewhat obscure office located within the U.S. House of Representatives – the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) – received significant media coverage because of a provision contained in the proposed House Rules package that would have changed the name of the office and altered some of its functions. The provision related to the OCE was subsequently removed from the House Rules package before it was finalized, but concerns about the OCE are likely to continue. 

The OCE was originally established on March 11, 2008, via a House of Representatives resolution. The Senate considered, but ultimately rejected the creation of a similar entity in 2008 – the Office of Public Integrity. At the time, both the House and Senate already had existing Ethics Committees with primary jurisdiction over House and Senate ethics matters and that remains the case today. Similar to the House Ethics Committee, the OCE is tasked with investigating violations of any law, rule, regulation, or standard of conduct by Members, Officers, and Employees of the House of Representatives. Unlike the House Ethics Committee, the OCE does not have the power to compel testimony, subpoena documents, determine whether a violation has occurred, or impose sanctions.  The OCE's role is limited to conducting a preliminary investigation and making recommendations to the House Ethics Committee on whether to investigate further. 

The primary rationale for the creation of the OCE in 2008 was the perception that the House Ethics Committee was dysfunctional.  The OCE was intended to provide a way for the public to file an ethics complaint against a Member of the House and to spur the House Ethics Committee into action. Over the years, the relationship between the OCE and House Ethics Committee has been rocky at times and OCE has periodically angered rank and file Members of the House. The current controversy is merely the latest example of Member frustration with the OCE – in 2011, an unsuccessful attempt was made on the House floor to dramatically cut its budget. 

Even though the jurisdiction of the OCE does not extend to private individuals or companies, it is not unusual for the OCE to seek documents or interviews from third-parties. And while the OCE does not have subpoena power, the OCE will often publicly disclose witnesses that do not cooperate with their investigations, which can cause reputational harm. In general, individuals and entities must exercise extreme caution and should be represented by counsel when interacting with the OCE. The OCE will periodically make referrals to the U.S. Department of Justice, including for alleged false statements or Lobbying Disclosure Act violations discovered during OCE investigations.    

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