House GOP Votes To Strip Independence From Congressional Ethics Office

Jan 2, 2017
Originally published on January 3, 2017 11:44 am

Updated at 10:15 a.m. ET

The House Republican Conference voted Monday night to approve a change to House rules to weaken the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics and place it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee, a panel controlled by party leaders.

It will be part of a broader House Rules package to be voted on by the full body on Tuesday after the 115th Congress officially convenes and the House elects a speaker.

The Office of Congressional Ethics was established in 2008 under House Democrats, in response to the era of lobbying scandals made notable by Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist who went to prison on corruption charges.

It is the first independent body to have an oversight role in House ethics. There is no Senate counterpart. The OCE independently reviews allegations of misconduct against House members and staff, and if deemed appropriate refers them to the House Ethics Committee for review. The OCE cannot independently punish lawmakers for any ethics violations.

House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke out against the move, according to a source in the room who said Ryan stated that "there's a bipartisan way to better reform the office."

President-elect Donald Trump was critical of the vote, tweeting Tuesday morning, "With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority."

Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway had defended the move earlier, telling ABC's Good Morning America that the election justified the action by congressional Republicans. "There's a mandate there for them to make significant change," Conway said.

The vote has caused a backlash among Democrats, who say it's hypocritical given that Trump was elected vowing to "drain the swamp" in Washington.

The language approved Monday night, authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would prevent staff from making public statements independent of the House Ethics Committee and prevents it from investigating anonymous tips. A senior GOP aide said that's all "because members are sick of having their name dragged through the mud based on partisan sometimes anonymous accusations."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was speaker when the OCE was created, criticized the decision in a 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," she wrote. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."

In a statement, Goodlatte said his rules change would "strengthen" the OCE and improve due process rights for those subject to ethical investigations.

"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," Goodlatte wrote.

The Goodlatte amendment still would allow the OCE to accept and review complaints, but it would bar the consideration of anonymous complaints. It also would rename it the "Office of Congressional Complaint Review."

While Speaker Ryan spoke out against the move to his fellow GOP lawmakers, his office defended the amendment, saying it provides "greater due process rights, clear timelines for consideration of complaints, and a basic level of oversight by the evenly-split bipartisan ethics committee. It does NOT remove the responsibility of the office to review complaints, carry out investigations, and make referrals to the ethics committee. The office will continue to operate in the new year and provide public accountability to Congress."

In November, Ryan stopped the House from bringing back earmarks — provisions that in the past allowed members to direct spending to specific projects.

"We just had a 'drain the swamp' election," Ryan reportedly said at the time. "Let's not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later."

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This country's 150th Congress begins its work today, and this is a new era here in Washington with Republicans controlling, well, almost everything, both the House and Senate and soon the White House.

Before the new Congress assembles today at noon, House Republicans have already taken a controversial vote behind closed doors. The vote held late last night would weaken an independent ethics office that investigates complaints against members of the House. A majority of Republicans say this new rule would make investigations more transparent and more fair. But Democrats say it runs counter to President-elect Donald Trump's pledge to, quote, "drain the swamp."

And let's talk about this with NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis who's in the studio this morning. Sue, good morning.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what happened here? What was this vote, and what does it do?

DAVIS: So at the beginning of every Congress, the House has to vote on the rules that govern itself, and the majority party, which is Republicans in this case, take a first bite of that apple. And they met last night to make changes to those House rules before it goes to a vote today. And Bob Goodlatte is a Republican from Virginia, and he made this proposal, which was not known ahead of time. We didn't know this was going to happen last night.

GREENE: This took some of his Republican colleagues by surprise presumably.

DAVIS: And including their party leadership, and effectively what this says is the Office of Congressional Ethics can no longer - which is an outside group, it is not governed by Congress - that it can no longer investigate anonymous complaints made against members of Congress, that the existing Health (ph) Ethics Committee that is made up of members of Congress can tell it when to or when not to start investigations, and it can make fewer things public that it used to be able to disclose in terms of how many investigations they had and who they were investigating.

GREENE: This sounds very important. So there was an independent body that would investigate complaints, ethics complaints, against lawmakers. Now, a House committee run by actual lawmakers, Republican lawmakers themselves. Or actually this committee is actually divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, right?

DAVIS: The existing House Ethics Committee is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

GREENE: Oh, OK, so a bipartisan committee (unintelligible).

DAVIS: It is a bipartisan committee. And it's created that way to eliminate one party from having more power. So that is the Republicans' argument. Well, they say, look, it's gives the House Ethics Committee more power over this committee, but that's the way it should be, that this is a bipartisan committee. In some ways, their work has been redundant. The outside - this outside group cannot independently punish members. They can only make recommendations to the Ethics Committee to do that. It's just sort of the first step in an investigations process.

GREENE: What is the argument for this? I mean, the optics of this are not that great if you have lawmakers saying we want to weaken the independent body that investigates us.

DAVIS: Yes. It does not look good, particularly when you have Donald Trump, who had campaigned on this drain the swamp message and changing the way Washington works.

GREENE: This almost seems like it's protecting the swamp in a way.

DAVIS: (Laughter) Well, the OCE was created in 2008, and it came out of - the 2006 midterm elections was an era in which then minority leader who became Speaker Nancy Pelosi campaigned again on draining the swamp. She used the exact same language Donald Trump did.

GREENE: As Donald Trump.

DAVIS: And this office was created in response to a series of scandals that happened in Washington, if you remember the lobbyist Jack Abramoff who received a lot of attention then. And there was a number of lawmakers who were investigated in - with their relations to him and to other bribery scandals. And there was just this era where the public was really frustrated with Washington.

And then President Obama and House - then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped pass this law which created the OCE, which was to say to the public, you know, it wasn't that the Ethics Committee inside Congress wasn't working, but sometimes the problem when you have equally divided bipartisan committees is there's almost a truce. Nobody wants to be the party that actually turns on the other. So the House Ethics Committee, the criticism against it was that it was just sort of feckless and maybe an outside group was needed to sort of give it a nudge to make sure it did these investigations.

GREENE: OK, so it doesn't look good in some ways to get rid of this independent body. What is the argument for getting rid of it? I mean, it sounds like this congressman who proposed it is saying that it would be more transparent if they get rid of this body. How would that work?

DAVIS: Yeah, and that was Goodlatte's argument, and a lot of the Republicans that supported this had been subject to investigations by the OCE and were very frustrated by that process. One of their points is that, you know, in any other proceeding, if you are accused of something, you have a right to challenge your accuser. And if you - but if someone can anonymously file complaints against you, that forces you to hire counsel, to spend money, to defend yourself but you don't even know who's making the accusation against you.

And we should say that overt - since 2008, when this was created, there have been Democrats that have also criticized this process who have said it is not fair that people can accuse us of wrongdoing, and we don't have the same due process rights we would have in other courts or other proceedings.

GREENE: This seemed to catch even Speaker of the House Paul Ryan by surprise. I mean, what does that suggest about how much control he has over his caucus heading into this new Congress?

DAVIS: That's right. He, the speaker, I'm told, in this closed-door meeting advised against it, said it's never good for the House or for Congress to make changes to this kind of process without bipartisan buy-in. If you're going to say the Ethics Committee - the ethics process in Congress is bipartisan...

GREENE: We should talk about it.

DAVIS: We should talk about it, and you should bring in at least members of the Ethics Committee to have a say in that. They overrode him. You know, a fair number of Republicans voted against doing this, but a majority of the majority, which is a phrase we hear a lot, decided to do it. This will get a full vote today on the House floor in Congress. It's a question of whether they have the votes for the rules package.

The House will also vote today to elect Paul Ryan, speaker of the new Congress. And of course he is expected to easily get that. Whether or not there is defections on the floor for either him or Nancy Pelosi, who also received some pushback from her members, remains to be seen.

GREENE: OK. And then your busy (laughter) - your busy year begins with the Republicans ready to repeal Obamacare and get their agenda going.

DAVIS: And actually get some work done.

GREENE: OK. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Sue, thanks.

DAVIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.