Policy

Amid Blowback, Republicans Strip Ethics Office Change From House Rules

Progressive groups join with some conservatives to oppose overhaul of OCE

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., conducts a news conference after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol, September 21, 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

By Rema Rahman and Simone Pathé

House Republicans on Tuesday quickly reversed their position on a provision in a House Rules package that would have significantly changed how the independent Office of Congressional Ethics investigates members of Congress. 

But the episode demonstrated how quickly Democratic lawmakers, progressive organizations and even some conservative-leaning groups could mobilize around efforts to “drain the swamp” and curb influence-peddling and dubious dealings in Congress.

In a meeting at the Capitol on Tuesday that lasted less than 10 minutes, Republicans agreed to strip an amendment from the rules package amid a firestorm of criticism that members were trying to gut an agency tasked with holding lawmakers accountable. The amendment was adopted during a closed-door meeting Monday night as part of a broader House rules package for the 115th session.

“Calmer heads prevailed this morning,” said Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Charlie Dent, who was chairman of the House Ethics Committee during the 114th Congress.

Dent said he did not support the amendment because of a provision that would have required the Ethics Committee to have jurisdiction over the independent office.

“To me, that was very ambiguous, it was vague,” Dent said. “I was not clear how that would work.”

The OCE currently operates as an independent congressional body that reviews conflicts of interest and other ethics requests made by any member of the public. It has jurisdiction over members of the House alone.

The office does not have the power to reprimand members. It may only recommend that the Ethics Committee further investigate cases the OCE has reviewed on its own. (Those inquiries may include interviews with members and staff and issuing subpoenas.) There are also rules that require the Ethics Committee to publicly publish reports submitted by the OCE after a certain amount of time.

[Trump Criticizes House GOP on Ethics Office Overhaul]

Under the current arrangement, any member of the public may file a request for the OCE to take up a review of a member, whereas the Ethics Committee may only accept requests from other members of Congress.

Public Citizen, a progressive watchdog group, dubbed the proposed change the “Jack Abramoff Restoration Act of 2017,” reflecting the genesis of the office, which Democrats formed in 2008 after a series of scandals involving lawmakers of both parties — notably the Abramoff affair — rocked the Capitol.

More than 20 people were found guilty in the scandal involving Abramoff’s lobbying for Indian tribes, and one member of Congress — then-GOP Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio — went to jail. Separate bribery scandals sent two other lamwakers to jail: Democrat William Jefferson of Louisiana and Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California.

Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson said members on Tuesday were responding to criticism that Republicans were backing off on ethics.

“I don’t know anybody who’s against ethics,” Simpson said. “That’s not a good campaign slogan. But it ought to be fair, and it ought to be fair to members and the staff.”

President-elect Donald Trump weighed in on the prospective change Tuesday morning, tweeting that lawmakers should focus on taxes, health care and “other things of far greater importance.”

Rep. Dave Brat said the OCE had been used as a “political bludgeon tool to knock each other over the head.”

“Both parties have abused it in the past,” the Virginia Republican said. “[It] shouldn’t be that way and that’s what ethics is about.”

Lawmakers have repeatedly pushed to cut or even eliminate funding for the OCE. In 2011, 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 people being investigated of their right to a lawyer. Pearce said at the time that a onetime junior aide had been “unfairly singled out” in a probe that was eventually dropped. 

Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King said he would push to eliminate the OCE entirely because it’s based on what he called wrong principles and that people could not be subject to public criticism generated by anonymous accusers.

Some Republicans, though, said Tuesday they did not support the ethics proposal.

“The amendment adopted behind closed doors last night in conference gives too much power to the very elected officials at times in need of oversight,” said South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus

Several GOP lawmakers said they expected to come up with a solution that addressed concerns with the way the OCE operates and that had bipartisan backing.

“We want to fix this process — it’s broken,” North Carolina GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx said. “It should be bipartisan. They’re hurt as much as we are.”

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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