The ethics of House members are frequently used as a punchline. Or a headline. This week, it was Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-NY, on trial. In coming weeks, it will be Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. Their alleged wrongdoings were among many investigated and uncovered by the Office of Congressional Ethics.
But the future of that office is in question. Despite publicly promising more transparency and disclosure of the inner workings of Congress, behind closed doors, the GOP leadership has made moves indicating the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) may be targeted for cuts or extinction.
According to an email seen by ABC News, Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., called the OCE on Friday, Nov. 5, just three days after the midterm elections in which Republicans regained a majority and control of the House. During that phone conversation, ABC's source said, the California representative asked for justification of its continued existence.
A memo outlining why the bipartisan group is a service to Congress was then sent to one of Dreier's representatives late Sunday evening, Nov. 7 – right before the 22-member transition team convened to begin crafting rules for the operation of the GOP-led House, sources close to congressional leadership told ABC News.
Two members on that GOP transition team are were previously investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics: Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the likely GOP Conference chair, and John Campbell, R-Calif. Hensarling was cleared of all charges, Campbell is still under investigation by the House ethics committee.
A spokeperson for Campbell's office said the congressman is not working on anything related to ethics in his role on the transition team. Hensarling and Dreier's offices did not respond to requests for comment by ABC News.
The OCE is an independent agency that vets ethics complaints and refers those worth further investigation to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, also known as the House ethics committee.
Reform groups are not surprised by the GOP leadership's alleged moves behind the scenes.
"Something like getting rid of the Office of Congressional Ethics, they're going to want to do it quietly," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. He said there are a few ways to close the office without drawing attention. "[Either] a death by a thousand cuts, where you whittle away at their funding, or their support, even their office space. Or you end up defunding it and hope that no one really notices."
The Republican transition team, headed by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has said repeatedly that no decision has been made on the future of the Office of Congressional Ethics, adding that it isn't even a priority.
"We're not focused in on the ethics side of things at all," Walden told ABC's 'Top Line' on Monday. "We're not working on that issue at all."
Reform advocates say the House's continuing need for an independent watchdog should be a major issue for the new class of 2011. Bob Edgar of Common Cause said in a statement on Monday that retaining and strengthening the OCE should be a top priority for incoming Republicans.
Others say that when it comes to the ethics office, GOP leaders have already made up their minds.