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In a surprising vote in a closed-door meeting on Monday, just hours before the Congress begins this year’s session, House Republicans, in a 119-74 vote, adopted an amendment by Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to place the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, directly under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee.
While, at first glance, this move seems inconsequential, a further look shows that by doing so, the power, as well as the independence of the investigative body is taken away, and control of internal inquiries are stripped, as control of investigations of congressional lawmakers is given to the very people that the office investigates.
The new amendment would strip the office of its spokesman, will no longer allow the office to investigate anonymous tips without the ok of the House Ethics Committee, and allow the HEC to end any probe as it sees fit.
The move was undertaken by several GOP lawmakers in the dead of night without debate or announcement. Those that pushed for the change despite opposition by the GOP leadership, are those that feel like they were unfairly accused of violations by OCE, as well as those that are currently under investigation by the watchdog.
With this change, that will be voted on by the full House today, the amendment will make sure that information gathered by investigations cannot be released to the public, and all investigations will be overseen by the House Ethics Committee.
The OCE was set up in 2008, at a time that corruption scandals rocked the capitol. That year, three congressmen, Representatives Duke Cunningham, Republican of California; William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana; and Bob Ney, Republican of Ohio, were sent to prison on corruption charges.
“Last night House Republicans moved shamelessly to destroy the only independent ethics watchdog in the House of Representatives,” said DCCC Spokesman Tyler Law. “One must assume that this brazen assault on transparency and good government is aimed at letting Republicans engage in the same corrosive and unethical behavior that led to the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics in the first place. This is a shameless way to start the new Congress and every House Republican should immediately voice public opposition – and ultimately vote against – these shady rule changes.”
President-Elect Donald Trump also weighed in on the last night’s vote on Twitter, saying, “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. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!” Trump included the hashtag #DTS, meaning “Drain the Swamp.”
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi responded to the news with a press release, saying,
“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 Office of Congressional Ethics 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.
“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.”
Spokesman for the watchdog organization, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibilty in Washington, Jordan Libowitz said in a statement, “Threatening its independence is a disservice to the American people who need a nonpartisan body to investigate the ethical failures of their representatives, the fact that they do not want an Office with ‘Congressional Ethics’ in the name is a pretty good metaphor for how ethics scandals will be dealt with if this rule passes.”
The amendment is due for a vote of the full House at 4 pm EST.