Columns

GOP Caucus Bucks Leadership to Strip Down Independent Ethics Office

Image via Shutterstock, the gravestone of Ebenezer Scrooge from "A Christmas Carol."

WASHINGTON — House Democrats accused Republicans of gutting the lower chamber’s only independent ethics investigatory body in a move tonight that was also opposed by House GOP leaders.

The caucus reportedly outweighed the arguments from Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in a 119-74 closed-door vote in the House Republican Conference. Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) said his amendment to the House Rules package was meant to strengthen the congressional oversight apparatus.

“The 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,” Goodlatte said. “It also improves upon 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 added.

The once-independent Office of Congressional Ethics, however, is being moved under the oversight of the Ethics Committee. Permission would be needed from the Ethics Committee members to refer cases of criminal wrongdoing to law enforcement.

Goodlatte’s office released a summary of the amendment saying the OCE would also be renamed to the Office of Congressional Complaint Review. The amendment also “bars the consideration of anonymous complaints” and “provides protections against any disclosures to the public or other government entities” about investigations.

The OCE was created in 2008 by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as part of a reform package in response to the lobbying scandal centered around Jack Abramoff. It continued to operate during the speakership of John Boehner (R-Ohio) and into the Ryan era.

“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. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress,” Pelosi said in a statement.

She added that the OCE is “essential to an effective ethics process in the House, providing a vital element of transparency and accountability to the ethics process.”

“The amendment Republicans approved tonight would functionally destroy this office,” Pelosi said. “Congress must hold itself to the highest standards of conduct. Instead, the House Republicans Conference has acted to weaken ethics and silence would-be whistleblowers.”

But Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), who favored the change, told reporters the OCE has been “out of control‎, we don’t even get constitutional rights, constitutional protections.”

“They don’t tell us who accuses us and they leak the data — they are out of control,” Flores said.