The first rule of ethics is not “ignore them.”
On Monday, House Republicans quietly voted 119-74 to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics without warning or debate, just days before a new session of Congress was set to begin, and weeks before the most publicly corrupt president in modern history is set to take office.
As it currently functions, the OCE has the freedom to investigate whatever it wants, and then, if warranted, pass cases along and recommend action to the House Ethics Committee. Politico reports that the new amendment would significantly hamper the office’s freedom, banning investigators from considering anonymous tips and from revealing the details and conclusions of their investigations by providing “protection against disclosures to the public or other government entities.” It would also rename it the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and would put it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee.
Brazenly, the move to gut the office and effectively seal details of its investigations was spearheaded by a group of representatives who, according to several sources that spoke with Politico, felt they had been wrongfully accused of infractions by the office. The men include Rep. Blake Farenthold from Texas, who was accused of sexually harassing a former staffer in 2015 (although the OCE recommended the Ethics panel abandon a probe, Farenthold reportedly “did not like the way the case was handled”), and Rep. Peter Roskam, who was investigated for receiving a prohibited gift when he, his wife, and his daughter traveled to Taiwan in 2011.
The OCE was founded in March 2008 in order to process and investigate ethics complaints against its staffers as part of the Democrats’ ethics reform package. The committee’s founding was spearheaded largely by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (whose platform, in a hideous twist, was to “drain the swamp” of corruption on Capitol Hill), and was in reaction to the high-profile cases of California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, and Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson—all of whom were convicted on various corruption and bribery charges.
A major challenge of the OCE has been to differentiate itself from the House Ethics Committee, which has notoriously had a “find-no-evil” stance with regard to its investigations. One way the office has done so has been through its commitment to transparency (it notably released a 138-page report on Georgia Rep. Nathan Deal’s shady financial dealings, even after he had resigned from his post.) There is no equivalent to the OCE in the Senate.
In November, another ethics office, the Office of Governmental Ethics, earned national attention after sending a series of tweets mocking Donald Trump’s trademark Twitter cadence and illiteracy, calling him out for refusing to divest from his international business endeavors. Although the tweets ultimately turned out to have been ordered by OGE director Walter Shaub Jr., they have been deleted from the account.
On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted inscrutably about the idea of congress and ethics:
There is nothing called the Independent Ethics Watchdog, though the president-elect seems generally in opposition to the idea of it.
In a statement made later Monday evening, Rep. Bob Goodlatte said, “The amendment builds upon and strengthens the existing Office of Congressional Ethics by maintaining its primary area of focus of accepting and reviewing complaints from the public and referring them, if appropriate, to the Committee on Ethics. It also improves upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.”
“The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work.”
“Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House G.O.P. has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi in a statement of her own. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
It could be a new Republican slogan: don’t stop the sinning, just silence the voice that calls it a sin.
Update [12:15 p.m.]: Multiple outlets are reporting that Rep. Goodlatte’s OCE-gutting amendment has reportedly been dropped after the proposed measure received overwhelming public disapproval, including from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose felony crimes helped lead to the founding of the corruption watchdog.