WASHINGTON Nov. 17, 2010 -- 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.
Getting Rid of the OCE 'Quietly''
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.
"There is not a doubt in my mind that they are going to do everything they can do to make the Office of Congressional Ethics go away or be ineffective," said Lloyd Leonard, senior director of the League of Women Voters. The nonpartisan group is organizing a press event to call on Republican leadership not to shut down the OCE.
Republicans maintain that the only people publicly calling for the ethics office's elimination are Democrats, referring to the Congressional Black Caucus.
The Office of Congressional Ethics is low on friends – both Democratic and Republican – because according to Leonard, it does its job well, living up to outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's goal to "drain the swamp" of corruption in the House.
Is the House GOP Targeting Ethics Office?
"If you drain the swamp," said Leonard, "all the crocodiles get nervous."
Incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in the past that he has tried to do all he can to hold members to the highest ethical standards. Yet the Texas congressman voted against the OCE's creation in 2008, and has publicly questioned its effectiveness.
"You can judge our effectiveness based on our work," said Jon Steinman of the Office of Congressional Ethics. "Before there were maybe one or two published ethics reports every decade, and we've published 12 in counting just in this Congress."
In addition, the office has conducted 69 reviews, recommended the House ethics committee take further review in 21 of those cases, and dismissed 17. Beyond numbers, the OCE has cast an uncomfortable spotlight on members. It has also unearthed wrongdoings that would have gone unnoticed, such as those uncovered in the 2008 investigation of the PMA group, a lobby group whose clients received millions in federal "earmarks" after making generous donations to a series of Democratic congressmen.
Nonpartisan groups believe bolstering the Office of Congressional Ethics would be the best way to ensure Washington does not relapse to business as usual.
"It would be helpful for them to have subpoena power, and we should have some entity like this over in the Senate," said Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. The authority to issue subpoenas is currently under the clout of the House ethics committee.
The Office of Congressional Ethics did have some friends in Congress, among them Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. Flake has publicly supported the ethics committee in the past, but now he is keeping his views to himself. ABC News asked the congressman about the OCE's impact so far, and whether he wants the see the office in action next year.
"We're going to hold off on weighing in on this until we have a clearer idea of what [the] OCE's status is in the next Congress," Flake's representatives said.
The Office of Congressional Ethics would also like a clearer idea of its future role under GOP leadership. For now, however, the only thing that seems certain, is the uncertainty of the OCE's fate come January.