House Republicans Vote To Strip Ethics Office Of Independence, Limiting Its Power

House Republicans abruptly voted on Monday night to eliminate the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics, the chamber’s nonpartisan ethics board which investigates lawmakers' alleged misconduct, largely stripping it of its power, leading to pushback from Democrats and government watchdog groups. House Republicans, meeting as a group Monday night, approved an amendment from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte that would place the office under the oversight of the lawmaker-run House Ethics Committee.

Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) pushed the ethics change, which would put the nonpartisan
Office of Government Ethics under the control of the House Ethics Committee

According to the WSJ, the Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent entity that serves as the chamber’s independent ethics watchdog by reviewing allegations against House members and staff. It is currently governed by an eight-person board of private citizens who don’t work for the government. Goodlatte’s measure is now part of the package of new House rules set to come up for a vote on the House floor Tuesday, when the new session of Congress convenes.

Why the unexpected move to curb insight into alleged congressional ethics violations? After all, insider trading for members of congress is still largely permitted: according to Goodlatte his proposal would ensure due process rights for lawmakers - the proposal bars the ethics office from considering anonymous tips about potential ethics violations and prevents disclosures about investigations. Lawmakers who found themselves under review by the Office of Congressional Ethics criticized the office for being too aggressive. Those who were cleared said it was unfair that the existence of investigations became public and that reputations could be tarnished even when suspicions were unfounded.

Under Goodlatte’s measure, the Ethics Committee would be able to direct the office to stop any of its investigations into possible lawmaker misconduct. The measure would reduce how much information could be made public about investigations. The office, to be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, wouldn’t be able to publicly release any of its findings unless authorized by the Ethics Committee, and it wouldn’t be allowed to employ a press spokesman. The office also wouldn’t be able to consider anonymous allegations against lawmakers, the WSJ adds.

Speaker Paul Ryan argued against the amendment during Monday's conference meeting, according to a source in the room the Hill reports.

Democrats created the Office of Congressional Ethics in March 2008, after they took control of Congress in 2007, saying they wanted to help clean up Congress and make the ethics process more transparent. If the office believes it has found violations, its job is to recommend a formal investigation by the traditional House Ethics Committee. 

The vote prompted protests from government watchdog groups, including those who had pushed for creation of the OCE in 2008. Those groups had said at the time that the Ethics Committee wasn’t diligent enough in policing and punishing member wrongdoing on its own.

“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 Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said in a statement Monday night. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”

"It should be clear by now that Donald Trump – already the most corrupt and conflicted President-elect in history – is betraying his promise to drain the swamp. Now Republicans in the House are following his example, attempting to cripple the independent entity that deals with ethics in Congress," DNC spokesman Eric Walker said in a statement.

Others chimed in as well:

Goodlatte defended his decision in a statement, saying that the office “has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work.”

He said his amendment “builds upon and strengthens the existing Office of Congressional Ethics by maintaining its primary area of focus of accepting and reviewing complaints from the public and referring them, if appropriate, to the Committee on Ethics. It also improves upon due-process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.”

But government watchdog groups said the change would diminish the office’s effectiveness in holding lawmakers accountable. Before the OCE was created, the House Ethics Committee was a “black box of inaction,” Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said in a statement.

“Following an election in which disdain for corruption in Washington was a defining issue—for the Republican presidential candidate, no less—it is an outrage that House Republicans are planning to undermine one of the modestly effective moves in recent years to reduce corruption,” she said.

Some worried the change would make it easier for lawmakers to skirt ethics rules, which of course, is the whole point.

“If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining OCE, it is setting itself up to be dogged by scandals and ethics issues for years,” Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, chairman and vice chairman respectively of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit legal watchdog group, said in a statement.