OCE's only recourse is to note that lack of cooperation negatively in its reports to the Ethics Committee, which is made up of 10 members of the House, and hope that the panel uses its own subpoena power to investigate—which rarely happens.
As CREW's Adam Rappaport noted, the Ethics Committee closed an investigation into a trip Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Bill Owens, D-N.Y., took to Taiwan after two of the groups involved in arranging the trips refused to participate in OCE's inquiry.
The watchdogs would like to see Congress grant OCE unlimited subpoena powers, but also offered a compromise proposal: Allow OCE to subpoena solely outside groups like lobbyists and PACs, rather than members and their staffs.
Congress must decide in January, when it passes its rules for the next session, whether it will continue to support OCE at all—in addition to whether it will consider changes to the office's powers. Although House leaders have not responded to the watchdog groups' request to make OCE a permanent institution, it appears that the office will survive at least another Congress. Granting it subpoena powers is another question entirely.
"The OCE has been renewed in each of the last two Congresses and I have no information on any change in the next," Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said in an email.
Similarly, Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a major supporter of OCE, said that House Democrats would support "the continuation of the OCE."
"The creation of this body under the Democratic Majority, along with sweeping changes to House rules, remains critical to efforts to reform the way Washington works," Hammill said in an email.
Neither Hammill nor Smith would comment, however, on granting subpoena powers of any kind to OCE.
This isn't the first time that watchdog groups have asked to grant OCE subpoena powers. The issue was at the heart of fights over the office's creation in the first place. Members on both sides of the aisle pushed back, and OCE was formed without the power to subpoena, drawing the ire of watchdog groups.
Those same groups now praise OCE for bringing transparency to the ethics process. Neither the House nor Senate Ethics committees release much information on whom they are investigating, the status of their reviews, or why they are investigating a particular member or office. By contrast, if OCE recommends a case to the House Ethics Committee, then OCE's report is eventually released to the public, though the timing of that release depends on how the Ethics panel handles the case.
But watchdog groups would like to do even more by giving subpoena powers to OCE. And Congress should support them in that effort, McGehee argued. A stronger OCE could provide benefits not just for watchdog groups and concerned voters, but members of Congress themselves, she said.