On Monday, during a closed-door meeting the House Republican Conference voted to adopt an amendment to the proposed House rules package, which was set to be voted on Tuesday. The amendment put forward by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) would move the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) watchdog under the oversight of lawmakers through the House Ethics Committee.
The OCE is an independent, non-partisan entity charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct against Members, officers, and staffers of the United States House of Representatives. The office was first created in 2008 under then Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. According to Politico, “Congress had created the office in the wake of Jack Abramoff scandal, which included the GOP lobbyist’s admission that he tried to bribe lawmakers. At the time, lawmakers hoped to stop anything like that from ever happening again.”
By Tuesday however, there was widespread outcry from both democrats on the Hill and outside groups about Chairman Goodlatte’s amendment. In a statement House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, “Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but 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. The Office of Congressional Ethics is essential to an effective ethics process in the House, providing a vital element of transparency and accountability to the ethics process. The amendment Republicans approved tonight would functionally destroy this office. Congress must hold itself to the highest standards of conduct. Instead, the House Republicans Conference has acted to weaken ethics and silence would-be whistleblowers.” Similarly, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a statement saying, “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…If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining OCE, it is setting itself up to be dogged by scandals and ethics issues for years and is returning the House to dark days when ethics violations were rampant and far too often tolerated.”
By Tuesday afternoon House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was forced to call an emergency House Republican Conference to reverse the decision on the amendment. However, Politico reports that “McCarthy’s motion to restore the current OCE setup was adopted by unanimous consent after Trump himself got involved” tweeting “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it ……..may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS.”
Minority Leader Pelosi released another statement following the House Republican Conference’s removal of Chairman Goodlatte’s amendment saying, “House Republicans showed their true colors last night, and reversing their plans to destroy the Office of Congressional Ethics will not obscure their clear contempt for ethics in the People’s House. Once again, the American people have seen the toxic dysfunction of a Republican House that will do anything to further their special interest agenda, thwart transparency and undermine the public trust.”
Some Republican members praised President-Elect Donald Trump’s involvement in the issue. According to The Hill, “Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said late Tuesday that President-elect Donald Trump “deserves a lot of credit” for House Republicans ditching a plan to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). “I think he deserves a lot of the credit. Look, I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Cole told CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront.
Following the Republican’s decision to remove the amendment from the House rules package (H.R. 5), the House of Representatives, approved the rules of the 115th Congress in a vote by the Yeas and Nays: 234 – 193.
Much of President-Elect Trump’s electoral campaign focused on “draining the swamp” and cleaning up Washington through ethics reforms, particularly around lobbying. During the election President-Elect Trump’s campaign released a plan for a lobbying reform package and implemented strict rules about lobbyists serving during the transition and in President-Elect Trump’s administration. Lobby Blog will continue to monitor ethics regulation changes under the 115th Congress and Trump Administration.