If you’re anxious to see how federal ethics standards will be eroded in 2017, you don’t have to hold your breath until January 20. On Monday night, House Republicans voted behind closed doors to gut an independent ethics office, which was established eight years ago after bribery and corruption scandals landed several members of Congress in jail.
The measure would transform the Office of Congressional Ethics — a six-member board of private citizens — into the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and put it under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is comprised of sitting members of Congress. The move is expected to be approved on Tuesday when the full House votes on a package of rules changes for the incoming 115th Congress.
Republican congressman Robert Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced on Monday evening that the House Republican Conference approved the change by a vote of 119 to 74, according to the Washington Post. There was no public notice that the effort to weaken the ethics office was under consideration, and Republicans reportedly approved the measure even though House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy spoke out against it during the conference meeting.
Goodlatte said in a statement that the amendment merely “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.”
But the proposed changes would significantly curtail the ethics watchdog’s activities. Currently, the Office of Congressional Ethics can investigate anonymous tips or news stories accusing lawmakers of wrongdoing by conducting confidential interviews and collecting documents. According to the New York Times, the board votes on whether the incident should be referred to the House Ethics Committee, which then conducts its own investigation. The House Ethics Committee can ignore the recommendation, but it must release the board’s report on the allegation.
Under the new rules pushed by Goodlatte, members of Congress would oversee all investigations by the Office of Congressional Ethics. The ethics board could not accept anonymous tips, make its findings public, investigate incidents that took place before January 3, 2011, or refer criminal acts to law enforcement. Per Goodlatte’s statement, “Any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the Members.”
“This is huge,” Bryson Morgan, a lawyer who worked for the Office of Congressional Ethics from 2013 until 2015, told the Times. “It effectively allows the committee to shut down any independent investigation into member misconduct.”
As the Washington Post notes, for decades, the House Ethics Committee was accused of protecting members of Congress, acting only when lawmakers committed egregious acts of misconduct. The Office of Congressional Ethics was created by Democrats in 2008 after Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials.
Investigations conducted by the ethics board were generally considered more robust than those carried out by the House committee. Both Republicans and Democrats targeted by the board have complained that it was too aggressive, but watchdog groups have dismissed those complaints.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said the move is actually risky for lawmakers. “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 and is returning the House to dark days when ethics violations were rampant and far too often tolerated,” the watchdog group said.
The current effort to remove the board’s independence was orchestrated by several Republican lawmakers who felt they had been wrongly accused of ethical misconduct, according to Politico. Democrats were already opposed to the package of rules changes, which includes measures introduced by Ryan in an apparent attempt to prevent protests from the House floor, like the Democrats sit-in against gun violence last year. Many said hobbling the ethics board shows Republicans actually have no intention of following one of Donald Trump’s key campaign promises.
“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 said in a statement. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
Other Democrats echoed her sentiments on Twitter:
“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,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Eric Walker. “Now Republicans in the House are following his example, attempting to cripple the independent entity that deals with ethics in Congress.”
To be clear, Trump has no direct role in the House GOP’s effort to curtail ethics investigations of its members. The president-elect recently insisted that his effort to “drain the swamp” is still on, and he could prove it by calling on members of his party to leave the Office of Congressional Ethics alone. On the other hand, Trump probably doesn’t want to start a war with the body that’s supposed to hold him accountable for ethics violations.