House GOP votes to rein in independent ethics watchdog
House Republicans are moving to adopt a proposal weakening the chamber’s outside ethics watchdog, removing its independence and establishing new limitations on its powers.
The House Republican Conference on Monday adopted Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) amendment to the larger rules package being voted on Tuesday, the first day of the new Congress.
The amendment puts the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) watchdog under the oversight of lawmakers through the House Ethics Committee.
The ethics office would be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, according to a summary of the amendment released by Goodlatte’s office.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argued against the amendment during Monday’s conference meeting, according to a source in the room.
The proposal bars the ethics office from considering anonymous tips about potential ethics violations and prevents disclosures about investigations. Goodlatte said in a statement his proposal would ensure due process rights for lawmakers.
Ethics watchdogs, however, warn that barring the OCE from reviewing anonymous tips would impede whistleblowers who may fear blowback over a sensitive case.
Currently, OCE investigators have the freedom to pursue allegations against lawmakers and make recommendations to the House Ethics Committee about whether to open a formal probe. The committee can then decide whether a lawmaker is innocent or deserves some sort of punishment.
The ethics office was established as an independent, non-partisan entity by Congress under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2008.
Pelosi led the push to create the OCE as part of a congressional ethics reform package in response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and other violations by former Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and others.
The rallying cry for Pelosi’s ethics reform measures was, in fact, to “drain the swamp.” The same phrase has been adopted more recently by President-elect Donald Trump, who made a campaign push for ethics reforms, such as expanding a lobbying ban on members of his administration.
But House Republicans are starting the new Congress by limiting oversight of themselves.
Democrats and ethics watchdog groups blasted the GOP’s move Monday night, which came on a federal holiday and only one day before the full rules package hits the House floor.
“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,” Pelosi said in a statement.
“Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress,” the House Democratic leader said.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) echoed that sentiment, accusing House Republicans of “signaling a return to the days of Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay.”
“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.
Goodlatte defended the amendment in a statement, arguing it “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,” he continued. “The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work.”
Updated: 9:18 p.m.
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