Republicans in the US House of Representatives took a surprise step Monday night to strip an independent ethics office of its independence, despite opposition from party leaders.
If implemented, the new rules would rename and reconfigure the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which was established in 2008 following a series of scandals that resulted in jail time for three members of Congress. The new body, dubbed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review (OCCR), would be fully subject to members of the House Committee on Ethics – an arrangement that critics say has allowed lethargic ethics probes in the past.
Bryson Morgan, a former OCE investigative attorney, said the new rules would seem to enable committee members to halt and bury an investigation before it is completed.
"This is huge," Mr. Morgan, who now represents lawmakers under ethics investigations, told The New York Times. "It effectively allows the committee to shut down any independent investigation into member misconduct. Historically, the ethics committee has failed to investigate member misconduct."
The proposed rules – which were approved 119-74 in a meeting Monday and which are scheduled for a vote by the full House on Tuesday – would place the independent ethics office under the committee's direct control. The ethics office would not be allowed to investigate anonymous complaints, and it would be required to terminate any investigation at the committee's direction. The office would, furthermore, lack authorization "to make any public statement, or release any information or other material to the public or any other entity" without committee approval – not even to law enforcement.
"The board of the Office is not authorized to employ any person for a position involving communications with the public, including communications director or press spokesperson," the rules note.
Aides told the Times that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) of California both spoke out against the rules during Monday's meeting. But rank-and-file Republicans overrode their leadership.
Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia defended the rules as a way to strengthen the due process rights of House members accused of wrongdoing while continuing to facilitate the office's investigatory function.
"The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work," Representative Goodlatte said in a statement Monday night, outlining the office's eight-year history and summarizing the proposed changes.
Citing several unnamed sources, Politico reported that the push to neutralize the independent ethics office was orchestrated by a number of House members who felt wrongly targeted by the office, including Rep. Blake Farenthold (R) of Texas, Rep. Peter Roskam (R) of Illinois, and others.
Representative Farenthold had been accused by a former staffer of sexual harassment, but the office recommended in September 2015 that the investigation be dropped – and the staffer's related lawsuit was dismissed from court, Politico reported. Representative Roskam had been investigated for possibly receiving an impermissible gift while he traveled to Taiwan in 2011, but the probe was dropped.
The proposed changes drew outcry from Democrats and independent ethics groups alike, who have been outspoken already as US President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take the White House amid conflict-of-interest concerns pertaining to his business interests.
"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," Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, the House Minority Leader, said in a statement Monday. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."
Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, former top ethics lawyers for President Obama and former President George W. Bush, respectively, issued a statement on behalf of ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), saying stripping the OCE of its independence would "create serious risk" to House members and the American public.
"If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining OCE," they wrote, "it 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."