Policy

House GOP Moves to Curb Independent Ethics Office

Republicans also shoot down attempt to scrap Appropriations Committee

A proposal by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., was adopted as part of a sweeping package of rules to be put before the full House on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 10:40 p.m.

By JENNIFER SHUTT, BRIDGET BOWMAN and KELLIE MEJDRICHCQ Roll Call

House Republicans meeting behind closed doors on Monday night moved to put the independent Office of Congressional Ethics under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee, effectively curbing the watchdog’s latitude to pursue wrongdoing by lawmakers.

A proposal by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., was adopted as part of a sweeping package of rules to be put before the full House on Tuesday, when the 115th Congress convenes.

The independent ethics office was created in 2008 to investigate ethics complaints filed by the public. It currently refers cases to the Ethics Committee. After 90 days, the committee is required to make certain reports public and publicly state how it will handle the case moving forward.

Critics said the move would undercut President-elect Donald Trump’s vows to “drain the swamp,” and save lawmakers facing scrutiny the embarrassment of having charges aired in public. The office would be limited in its ability to accept anonymous tips and launch preliminary investigations.

“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,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a statement.

“Undermining the independence of the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics 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,” said Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, chairman and vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in a statement

[House Members Seek Rules Changes on Ousting Speaker, Moments of Silence]

Goodlatte defended his amendment in a tweet Monday night. 

"Rules amdt approved by House GOP strengthens Office of Cong Ethics & improves upon due process rights," Goodlatte tweeted. "Does nothing to impede OCE’s work."

Never popular on Capitol Hill, the independent ethics office was vulnerable to stonewalling, interference or outright elimination. The office investigates House members; no such office exists in the Senate.

House leaders created it with a simple rule change, making it vulnerable whenever the chamber adopts new rules at the beginning of every Congress.

Lawmakers have repeatedly pushed to cut or even eliminate funding for the office. In 2011, then-Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, won 102 votes to slash funding by 40 percent.

Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, originated a 2015 rule change, adopted with no advance notice or discussion, requiring the office to notify subjects of investigations of the right to a lawyer and can’t hold it against them if they retain one,. Pearce said at the time that a onetime junior aide had been “unfairly singled out” in a probe that was eventually dropped. Ethics office officials have defended their fairness.

Republicans Monday night separately rejected a proposal that would have dissolved the Appropriations Committee and put its discretionary spending authority in the hands of the authorizing committees, among other sweeping proposed changes to House rules.

That proposal, from Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., was strongly condemned ahead of the closed-door meeting by House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who said adopting the Nunes amendment to a rules package would take the unified Republican Congress in the “wrong direction.”

“Rewriting the committee system in the midst of the effort to undo eight years of Obama and install Republican priorities will be a major distraction and invite discord within our conference,” Frelinghuysen wrote in a Dear Colleague letter dated Monday.

The Senate, he wrote, is not considering a parallel proposal, which means if Nunes’ amendment was folded into the House’s rules for the next two years, the plan “would create a disconnect between the House and Senate on moving legislation, threatening further inaction at exactly the time we need to be ready to act.

If approved, the Nunes amendment would have given the House Rules Committee until Nov. 1 to “reassign appropriations jurisdiction to the relevant standing or select committee.” In a letter sent to his colleagues on Dec. 30, Nunes urged House Republicans to “streamline the appropriations process, empower individual members of Congress and restore Congress’ constitutional authority.”

House Republicans also rejected an amendment to strike a provision from the base rules package that would bring back for one year the “Holman rule” that allows members to offer floor amendments to appropriations bills to reduce a department or agency’s workforce or adjust compensation levels for certain federal workers.

The provision was opposed by Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. But the two were unsuccessful in removing it from the rules package.

The rule’s return could be an interesting trial for the unified Republican Congress, allowing budget hawks to reduce the size and scope of federal agencies through budget cuts.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.