On Tuesday morning, House Republicans decided to no longer pursue their plan to effectively eradicate the Office of Congressional Ethics after receiving widespread backlash from both sides of the aisle. On Monday night the House Republican Conference had voted to remove the power and independence from an autonomous office charged with investigating Congressional instances of corruption.
The surprising vote had taken place with no advance notice or opportunity for debate on the evening before Congress begins a new session, during which healthcare and infrastructure are promised to be major issues on the docket and will be accompanied by intensive corporate lobbying.
Nancy Pelosi, who helped to create the office in 2008 after a number of high profile corruption scandals sent three members of Congress to jail, said in a statement Monday, “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. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-VA) defended the House Republican Conference vote, claiming that lawmakers needed to be protected against what some have called overzealous initiatives by the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Under the current system, the Office of Congressional Ethics, overseen by a six-member outside board, conducts its own investigations and then, if determined relevant, refers its findings to the House Ethics Committee, a panel controlled by party leaders. Even if the Committee of lawmakers dismisses the allegations as unfounded, the Office of Congressional Ethics still releases a detailed report of the allegations, deterring lawmakers from engaging in such questionable actions in the future.
If the new system were to have been put in place, Republicans would have created an Office of Congressional Complaint Review, which would not have investigated anonymous tips and would have had all investigations overseen by the House Ethics Committee, a body of Congressional members that, according to the New York Times, “has been accused of ignoring credible allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers.”
In an article in The Atlantic, Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, writes, “Having members of a political and partisan body pass judgments on their colleagues has inherent conflicts. Fail to act when wrongdoing is apparent? The old-boy network is protecting its own, proving the corruption of politics. Take tough action or bring controversial charges? That can reflect partisan motives or revenge, or the ambitions of members of the ethics panel taking out rivals for power. Clouds of suspicion hang over the process.”
When the Office of Congressional Ethics was created in 2008, it was the first time lawmakers had created an independent body to oversee congressional ethics; a similar investigative office does not exist in the Senate.
Media Resources: CNN 1/3/2017; New York Times 1/2/2017; NPR 1/2/2017; The Atlantic 1/3/2017.