WASHINGTON — In a closed-door meeting on Tuesday after more than twelve hours of backlash — including from the incoming president — House Republicans killed a controversial measure to gut Congress's independent ethics office.
Republican members said Tuesday that the move was in part about both timing and optics, after President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning that they should focus on higher priorities, rather than weakening the ethics watchdog.
Republican members of the House supported the amendment in a closed-door session Monday night on a secret ballot, raising questions among ethics watchdogs about the GOP’s commitment to make good on Donald Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp” and hold Washington officials accountable.
The amendment would have absorbed the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) into the House’s Committee on Ethics, putting the group directly under a committee of members of Congress whom the office is expected to investigate.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy both opposed the measure in a Monday night meeting, the Washington Post reported, and pushed members on Tuesday to wait on the ethics amendment just hours before the full House was set to vote. Several Republicans, both supporters and opponents of the measure, said it is likely to come up again — but this time Democrats will have an opportunity to debate and vote on the measure.
Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who proposed the amendment, said in a statement Monday night that the move would refocus the OCE on its core mission — “accepting and reviewing constituent complaints — while improving upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.” The OCE can accept ethics complaints from the general public, while the House Ethics Committee cannot. The office would be renamed the “Office of Congressional Complaint Review.”
The amendment also would have made other changes to the OCE, requiring that the office get permission from the ethics committee in order to release its findings to the public and prohibiting the office from employing any press or communications staffer. It was to prohibit the OCE from accepting anonymous tips from citizens, as well as congressional staff and other potential whistleblowers. And it would have prevented the office from investigating any potential violations of criminal law. If adopted, the amendment would have required the new OCE to stop investigating any potential violations if they receive a written request from the committee.
An earlier version of the amendment said the OCE would be "subject to the authority and direction" of the ethics committee, but that language was later softened to say that it would be "subject to oversight" by the committee.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi criticized the move shortly after the vote on Monday night. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress,” Pelosi said in a statement. “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.”
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a group that has frequently taken on members of Congress in ethical matters, said in a statement on Monday night that the House is “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.”
CREW Chairman Norman Eisen, who served as an ethics lawyer for President Barack Obama, and Vice Chairman Richard Painter, who served in that capacity under President George W. Bush, said the amendment “would create a serious risk to members of Congress, who rely on OCE for fair, nonpartisan investigations, and to the American people, who expect their representatives to meet their legal and ethical obligations.”
Goodlatte dismissed concerns of ethics watchdogs Monday night, saying in a statement that “the OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work.”
Ryan responded to criticism of the amendment in a statement on Tuesday, saying that OCE will continue to be an independent body run by an outside board and that he has told members of the House Ethics Committee “that it is not to interfere with the Office’s investigations or prevent it from doing its job.” Ryan referenced the updated language in the amendment, saying that while the House committee will have “oversight” of the office, it “is not controlled by the [c]ommittee.”
Ryan also emphasized that the House committee is bipartisan (it’s split evenly with five Republicans and five Democrats, though the chairman is Republican Rep. Charlie Dent). “I expect that oversight authority to be exercised solely to ensure the Office is properly following its rules and laws, just as any government entity should,” Ryan said.
This is not the first clash between the OCE and members of the House, who have voted several times in the last few years to cut the office. Members have said that the office has too much power and costs too much money to duplicate the House ethic’s committees efforts.
Goodlatte said Monday that members of Congress and their staff who have undergone review by the OCE had brought up concerns about protections for their due process rights and desired a fix that would also prevent them from discrimination “for invoking those rights.” As such, the amendment requires the OCE to inform any individual that they are investigating of their right to have a lawyer and prohibits the office from discriminating against them for getting one.
Congress created the OCE in 2008 in response to the Jack Abramoff scandal. Since, the office has investigated more than 100 alleged ethics violations, passing on roughly a third to the House Ethics Committee for review before publicizing its findings.
It is unclear how the new OCE would be structured if the amendment passes later this year. While staff members are employees of the House, its board members are private citizens, a structure that the group has often pointed to as evidence of its independence from the House and its member-run ethics committee.
A staff member at the OCE on Monday night would not speak on the record about the amendment.
An earlier version of the amendment read that the OCE would be "subject to the authority and direction" of the committee, but that language was later softened to say that it would be "subject to oversight" by the committee. This post has been updated to reflect that change. This post was also updated on Tuesday morning to include Ryan's statement.