'Ethics ... First Casualty Of New Republican Congress,' House Republicans Vote To Gut Independent Ethics Office

In a move which was carried out with no public notification nor debate, on Monday the House Republicans voted to drastically reduce the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics. The office was created eight years ago following several embarrassing and high-profile congressional scandals and now will be operated under the reins of the House Ethics Committee — a panel controlled by Republican party leaders.

The move the Republicans in the House of Representatives made was an abrupt one which actually came about without the approval of their leaders and is only one part of a broader House Rules package which has been put forth. The package is to be voted on by the full body on Tuesday after the House elects a speaker and the 115th Congress officially convenes. According to the Daily Caller, the Republicans voted 119-74 and on Tuesday the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) will be renamed as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and will be placed under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee.

The 2008 establishment of the Office of Congressional Ethics was under the House Democrats and was designed to have a non-partisan structure. It was created due to concerns that the operating Ethics Committee had been too timid in the pursuit of allegations of wrongdoings by House members. Operating independently of Congress, the Office of Congressional Ethics actually had very little power as-is but often released reports which were critical of the ethical lapses carried out by various congressmen.

The decision to cut the OCE's independence is one which many Democrats are already up in arms about. They have called it entirely hypocritical in the wake of the fact that Republican President-elect Donald Trump had been vowing to "drain the swamp" in Washington. House Minority Leader and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi was the speaker when the OCE was created, and criticized the Republican's decision in a written statement.

"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."
The OCE is the first independent body to carry out such an oversight role in House ethics and has no Senate counterpart. The Ethics Office had been tasked with independently reviewing allegations of misconduct against House members and staff, and if it was deemed appropriate, they were referred to the House Ethics Committee for review. The OCE had no power to independently punish lawmakers for any ethics violations they committed.

However, the new rules that the House Republicans has in store for the Office of Congressional Ethics mean that the office could no longer employ a spokesperson, investigate any anonymous tips nor would they be able to refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors unless given the express consent of the Ethics Committee. The Committee would essentially possess the power to abruptly end any investigation by the OCE. A GOP aide argued that they are bringing about the change "because members are sick having their name dragged through the mud based on partisan sometimes anonymous accusations."

The author of the new restrictions on the OCE, Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. also stands by the new language though and has stated that the OCE will be "strengthened" by the change.
"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. 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."
The NPR reported that according to a source who had been in the room, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan had actually spoken out against the move in the Monday evening conference meeting, with Ryan saying that "there's a bipartisan way to better reform the office." The men were said to have been outvoted by those beneath them, however, and it is expected that the OCE will likely be gutted in the upcoming Congress meeting.

A senior GOP aide had speculated that as the Ethics Committee is usually evenly divided between the majority and minority parties Republicans could not unilaterally act to protect the members of their own party. The upcoming move is expected to end such issues.

[Featured Image by Cliff Owen/AP Images]