U.S. House Republicans backtrack on plans to gut ethics body after criticism

The U.S. Capitol Building, home to the U.S. Congress. (Photo credit: Kevin Harber via Flickr / Creative Commons)

Members of the 115th U.S. Congress were sworn in today in what will soon become a government dominated by Republicans across all three branches.

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Nell Abram: Controversy loomed over the first day in session, just hours after House Republicans voted to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics – the only independent panel charged with overseeing lawmakers’ behavior. The political debacle began Monday evening, when – with no notice and on a federal holiday – rank and file Republicans easily approved rule changes that would have effectively rendered the OCE impotent. But lawmakers back peddled at the eleventh hour after a firestorm of criticism.

Aaron Scherb is Director of Legislative Affairs for Common Cause. He joins us from Capitol Hill to talk about what happened, and what we can take away from the fast-moving attempt to unpack independent ethics oversight from the current Congress.

Bring us up to speed – what happened here?

Aaron Scherb: Late last night, Republicans voted in their caucus to effectively eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent entity that oversees ethics and ethical conduct of House members. After a significant outpouring of criticism from concerned Americans across the country – with phone calls and emails and social media pressure – today, early this afternoon, House Republicans reversed course and decided to preserve the Office of Congressional Ethics and keep it as it is.

NA: Let’s back up a minute. What exactly is the structure of the Office of Congressional Ethics?

AS: The Office of Congressional Ethics was created in 2008, after the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. The existing House Ethics Committee, which is composed of sitting members of Congress, so essentially foxes guarding the hen house, continually failed to do its job – it failed to enforce its own members, it’s kind of like being the judge and the jury at the same time. And so, the House created the Office of Congressional Ethics, which is an independent watchdog entity composed of former members of Congress, academics and other distinguished individuals, so members of Congress don’t have to police themselves.

NA: And how would the proposed changes have altered it?

AS: The proposed changes by House Republicans would have placed the Office of Congressional Ethics within the House Ethics Committee, which is a fairly reckless entity. The proposal would have prevented the Office of Congressional Ethics from communicating with the public, from sharing information with the public. It wouldn’t have been able to launch its own, independent investigations without sign-off, either actual work or perceived sign-off from the House Ethics Committee, so it basically would have gutted the entity and eliminated all independence from it.

NA: So the rule change is off the table – at least for now. But what does this episode tell us about the state of the GOP?

AS: Well, when in the campaign where Donald Trump ran on a “drain the swamp” pledge and message, I think this shows us that they’ve really done a 180 and reversed course. And the fact is, it’s not been a “drain the swamp” pledge, it just was in name only. As the Office of Congressional Ethics isn’t codified in law, it’s just within House rules, there will be continual efforts to de-fund and eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics going forward.

NA: We saw some schism here between the rank-and-file Republicans and the GOP leadership – do we see a party in disarray?

AS: I think that then-Speaker Boehner always reauthorized the Office of Congressional Ethics and I think he realized how bad the optics would be to eliminate the only independent ethics watchdog that the House of Representatives has. And so, Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McCarthy, I think, want to give some free reign to their rank-and-file members, but that’s not always a good idea and I think they realize that.

NA: Some members of Congress say the ethics panel is partisan, denies members of Congress due-process and needs to be reformed. Do you agree?

AS: We’ve seen the Office of Congressional Ethics, which is an independent body, a nonpartisan body, investigate Republicans, investigate Democrats, and it while it lacks subpoena power – it’s far from perfect – it’s certainly a step in the right direction. It’s done a number of investigations that the House Ethics Committee refused or did not take up for whatever reason, and so there is a process in place and we have a common cause and other groups will continue to work to strengthen that and hopefully get it subpoena power and codified into law.

Aaron Scherb is Director of Legislative Affairs for Common Cause. He joined FSRN by phone from Capitol Hill.

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