House Republicans abruptly voted Monday night to effectively weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics that investigates lawmakers’ alleged misconduct.
Behind closed doors, the caucus voted to approve an amendment to a broader House rules package that would put the office under the House Ethics Committee and significantly restrict its authority. The House will vote Tuesday on the rules package as members open the 115th Congress.
The approval of the amendment, proposed by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, comes amid promises from President-elect Donald Trump to “drain the swamp.” Trump has also proposed several steps aimed at limiting corruption in Washington, including term limits on lawmakers and restrictions on lobbyists.
“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,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
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.
The idea behind the OCE was that an independent office could provide preliminary, independent reviews of ethics accusations against members of Congress and make recommendations about whether further investigation by the Ethics Committee was necessary.
“OCE is one of the outstanding ethics accomplishments of the House of Representatives, and it has played a critical role in seeing that the congressional ethics process is no longer viewed as merely a means to sweep problems under the rug,” said Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, the chairman and vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in a joint statement. “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.”
But the office has its detractors, including lawmakers and staffers on both sides of the aisle who claimed they have been unfairly treated. And there have been public turf wars with the Ethics Committee itself.
“There’s been numerous examples, and we heard some of them in there today, of members who have falsely been accused by this group who had to spend a fortune to have their good name restored,” said Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky, who said he supported the measure. “I think there has been an abuse.”
Some House Republicans, including Representative Dennis Ross of Florida, said there had been some concerns raised during the closed-door meeting Monday night of the optics of placing new limitations on a government watchdog days before Trump takes office. But he said the majority of the Republicans felt it was time to fix problems with the OCE.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California were among those who argued against the amendment, according to a lawmaker in the room who spoke on condition of anonymity. Ryan’s office had no immediate comment on the rule changes.
In a statement, Goodlatte described his amendment as one that would “build” on the OCE’s strengths, while also improving upon “the due-process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.”
“The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work,” he said.
Other changes would include requiring that any matter potentially involving a violation of criminal law be referred to the Ethics Committee. The OCE also would be barred from considering anonymous complaints, and its jurisdiction would be limited to the last three Congresses.