In a controversial move opposed by some leaders of their own party, House Republicans voted behind closed doors on Monday to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) and put it under the control of members of Congress.
The OCE, an independent ethic office that has the power to investigate members of Congress, was created in 2008 following a series of corruption and bribery scandals after Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials. In the years since, OCE has investigated Republican and Democratic officials alike.
Under a new proposal by Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), who serves as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the OCE would be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and fall under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee. With the OCE under lawmaker control, the office would be more limited than it is in its current form: The office can’t hire a spokesperson; it’ll bar anonymous tips against lawmakers, and it can only recommend criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors with consent from the committee.
Both House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) argued against the amendment, according to people who were in the room. Some members felt that they were wrongly accused by the OCE and that Goodlatte’s proposal allows them to protect themselves.
Alas, a majority of Republicans in attendance voted to pass the proposal 119-74 and add it to the House Rules package. Since the vote was behind closed doors, which members of Congress voted for the proposal was not recorded.
“The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work,” Goodlatte said in a statement.
However, the measure is already facing massive backlash from Democratic leaders and Washington watchdog groups. The move comes as the GOP continues to hold a majority in both houses and President-elect Donald Trump—who has numerous conflicts of interest but reportedly was not involved with efforts to gut the OCE—prepares to take office. Trump, a Republican, has pledged to pass many of the items on the GOP’s agenda.
Tell us, @GOP: Who, exactly, thinks that the problem with Washington is that we have too many rules requiring the gov to act ethically?— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) January 3, 2017
Total Republican control of federal government looks like this. Cozy for DC politicians/bad for you and your family. https://t.co/a5aORzQCvD— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) January 3, 2017
House GOP votes to turn independent ethics office into an unread complaint box. Why won't GOP keep their party promise to #DraintheSwamp ?— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) January 3, 2017
“Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions,” House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
Others have pointed out how easily, without the tool of anonymous tips, corruption accusations against members of Congress can be swept under the rug if Congress is now in charge of investigating itself. Those who do speak out publicly may face retribution.
Well, first of all under the new rules the staffer cannot submit a complaint anonymously, so would face retaliation.— Matthew Chapman (@fawfulfan) January 3, 2017
Second of all, the ethics office now cannot communicate with the public. Can only communicate with Congress.— Matthew Chapman (@fawfulfan) January 3, 2017
That means the only people who'll know there's a probe are people with a partisan motive to either hide or promote it. Muddies the waters.— Matthew Chapman (@fawfulfan) January 3, 2017
Third (and perhaps worst) the ethics office cannot report anything to law enforcement, only to the House Ethics Committee.— Matthew Chapman (@fawfulfan) January 3, 2017
Which means if our hypothetical congressman is the same party that controls the Ethics Committee, he walks. Nothing bad happens to him.— Matthew Chapman (@fawfulfan) January 3, 2017
The changes to the OCE are included in a House Rules package and will be voted on by Congress Tuesday afternoon.
Update 12pm CT, Jan. 3: House Republicans have scrapped plans to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics.
H/T NY Mag