The New House Already Wants to Gut Its Own Oversight

January 3rd 2017

Mike Rothschild

Update: House GOP members voted on Tuesday morning to retract the Goodlatte amendment, meaning the effort to roll back oversight of the House is dead for now.

On Monday night, with the country still in vacation mode, the new House GOP caucus took a shocking vote to gut the independent body that oversees congressional ethics.

In a closed-door meeting, House Republicans voted by secret ballot with no publicity or debate to place the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee. This would essentially give Congress control over the nonpartisan body charged with investigating its own behavior.

Virginia Congressman and House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte proposed the changes, which are being added to an already-controversial rules package seeking to limit public disclosure of congressional protests.

The new “Office of Congressional Complaint Review" would be forbidden from the public disclosure of ethics findings, and will only be allowed to reveal the results of their investigations in private congressional meetings. They will also be barred from investigating anonymous tips, thereby removing the ability of whistleblowers to stay confidential.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was formed in 2008 in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, along with the high-profile corruption cases of former members, including Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley and William Jefferson.

As the only independent body with oversight over lawmakers, the OCE has no subpoena or punishment power, but can investigate possible ethics violations or criminal allegations, and refer them to the House Ethics Committee - which does have the power to sanction members. It is also required to make its findings public, giving voters a chance to know what their elected officials are doing.

While currently staffed mostly with Democrats, the OCE investigates both parties, and has criticized Democrats as well. It handles between 10-20 investigations in a typical year.

Under Goodlatte's new office, these investigations will never be known by the public, meaning voters will be electing officials without knowing if they've been investigated for ethics violations. As Politico pointed out, the drive to eviscerate oversight of the House appears to come from House members who themselves felt like they've been wrongly accused of unethical behavior.

Reaction by Democrats to the new proposal was scathing. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released a statement referencing President-elect Trump's campaign promises, saying, “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."

Other Democratic members expressed their outrage on Twitter:

Surprisingly, a number of Republicans expressed hostility toward Goodlatte's bill, too.

Politico reported the vote on the measure was 119 to 74, indicating significant opposition to it. Both Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy spoke out against the measure in the closed-door meeting, sources told the New York Times. Even staunchly conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch urged the full House to vote the amendment down.

Trump himself weighed in on the flap, tweeting that as "unfair as it is," the OCE shouldn't be immediately gutted by Congress.

The rules package comes up for a full vote in the House on Tuesday afternoon.

Update at 9:40 AM with new information