House Republicans vote to cut independent ethics oversight rules

UPDATE — 12:41 p.m. EST: According to multiple media reports, Republicans, including a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, say they will drop an amendment to House rules that would severely limit authority of the OCE.

“(The amendment) was taken out by unanimous consent . . . and the House Ethics Committee will now examine those issues,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said.

 

The Republican House Conference voted Monday to adopt an amendment for rules governing the 115th Congress that would strip the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) of its independent status by putting it under control of the House Ethics Committee and prevent the publication of new investigations.

OCE was established in March 2008 by House Democrats, including then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, primarily in response to the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal which landed former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) in jail for two-and-a-half years and implicated Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas).

The Ethics Committee has always reserved final judgement on all investigations of members, including appropriate punishment for violations, but the adopted provision will also gives it authority to halt any OCE investigation at its choosing.

The amendment, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), additionally bars OCE from acting on anonymously-sourced tips or retaining a spokesperson, protecting “due process rights for individuals under investigation”.

“The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work,” Goodlatte said in a statement.

Despite the stated justification for less transparency in congressional oversight of its own members, both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), argued against the amendment’s adoption at Monday’s closed-door meeting, according to sources.

Sources also said that members who argued in favor of limiting OCE include: Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who was under investigation in 2015 for sexually harassing an ex-staffer; Pete Roskam (R-Ill.), scrutinized for accepting a gift from Taiwan’s government in October 2011; as well as Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), both of whom have come under OCE review.

Both House Democrats and Washington-based watchdogs took little time to lambaste the move which essentially weakens the enforcement of ethics rules on Capitol Hill, giving members more control over the fate of their own colleagues.

“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 Pelosi said in a statement.

Similarly, watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington issued a statement charging that Goodlatte’s amendment poses a “serious risk” to congressional members, by “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.”

Piggybacking off mass media scrutiny and negative publicity surrounding the vote, President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter Tuesday morning to condemn the GOP conference’s headlining action.

Despite his opposition to the amendment, Speaker Ryan issued a statement after Trump’s message was posted, saying “many members believe the Office of Congressional Ethics is in need of reform to protect due process and ensure it is operating according to its stated mission.”

 

[The Hill] [CNN] [Washington Post] [Politico] [Reuters]