Congress Decides Maybe It Shouldn’t Gut Independent Ethics Office (At Least Not Until August)

Image courtesy of Brad Clinesmith

Last night, against the reported wishes of party leadership, Republican members of Congress met behind closed doors to adopt an amendment to the House Rules package that would have effectively neutered an independent Congressional watchdog created in 2008. Following a huge backlash from the public and the President-elect, the lawmakers have now walked back this controversial effort, and will reconsider the change this summer.

The proposed amendment sought to severely rein in the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent entity created in 2008 to review allegations of misconduct against lawmakers and their staff.

Led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (VA), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, supporters of the proposal take away the nonpartisan OCE’s independence by putting it under the umbrella of the House Ethics Committee, which is controlled by whichever party has the majority in the House (currently the GOP, for those who haven’t been paying attention). The office — which would have been renamed Office of Congressional Complaint Review — would also have been barred from continuing to investigate anonymous tips, making it less likely that whistleblowers would step forward. If the OCCR concluded there was criminal wrongdoing, it could not refer a case to prosecutors without the Ethics Committee’s say-so. The reformed OCCR would also have not been allowed to employ a spokesperson, meaning all dealings with the public and the media would be through the Ethics Committee.

In an opinion piece published in The Hill this morning, Rep. Goodlatte defended his proposal, claiming that it “builds upon and strengthens the existing OCE” by allowing it to continue receiving complaints while “providing additional due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.”

Goodlatte contends that anonymous ethics complaints do more harm then good, as “anyone from anywhere in the world can send something through a website and potentially disparage the reputation of a Member without a basis in fact.”

While he may be correct in his conclusion that disallowing anonymous complaints could curb frivolous complaints, he fails to address the fact that requiring a name on all complaints will also discourage honest people from coming forward with suspicions of corruption.

Can you imagine if police departments only responded to 911 calls where they knew with certainty the identity of the person calling?

The public backlash to the proposal was swift, with calls, Tweet, emails, and petitions flooding the offices of GOP lawmakers.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan had previously been against the proposal but appeared resigned to its adoption early this morning, shrugging the change to OCE off by saying, “The office is still expected to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public. It will still investigate them thoroughly and independently.”

On Twitter, President-elect Trump criticized the rules change, accusing the lawmakers of misdirecting their focus on “weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog.”

Amid the fallout of their closed-door vote, lawmakers announced this afternoon, that they are tabling the proposal — for the moment.

The Washington Post reports that Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), who will take over as Chair of the House Ethics Committee later this month, has advised that the Committee will undertake a bipartisan review of changes to OCE, with the deadline of issuing a proposal before the August recess.