In one of their first moves of the new Congress, House Republicans have voted to gut their own independent ethics watchdog — a huge blow to cheerleaders of congressional oversight and one that dismantles major reforms adopted after the Jack Abramoff scandal.
Despite a warning from Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Republicans on Monday adopted a proposal by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to put the Office of Congressional Ethics under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee.
The office currently has free rein, enabling investigators to pursue allegations and then recommend further action to the House Ethics Committee as they see fit.
Now, the office would be under the thumb of lawmakers themselves. The proposal also appears to limit the scope of the office’s work by barring them from consider anonymous tips against lawmakers. And it would stop the office from disclosing the findings of some of their investigations, as they currently do after the recommendations go to House Ethics.
President-elect Donald Trump ran on a platform of draining the swamp of an often all-too-cozy Washington D.C.
Monday night’s moves go in the opposite direction, severely loosening oversight of lawmakers' potential conflicts of interest, use of campaign money and other ethical matters.
Republicans adopted the amendment, 119 to 74, after several lawmakers stood up and talked about being falsely accused by OCE of wrongdoing.
Democrats created the Office of Congressional Ethics in March 2008 after the Abramoff scandal, in which the well-connected GOP lobbyist plead guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials. Abramoff and his clients had used campaign donations and favors to sway members, including former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who served 30 months in prison, and a number of staffers.
Their idea was that an outside agency of sorts that could take up a more robust oversight of members. Republicans, however, claim the group has been too aggressive in making referrals.
Since the House, like the Senate, is allowed to govern itself and make its own day-to-day operating rules, the Republicans running the House since 2010 could have done this at any time. But they're only doing it now.
Also, note that Paul Ryan has zero control over his caucus already. The full floor vote on the rules package will be this afternoon, so it's possible that enough Republicans may hesitate and this fail, but it's also possible that some Democrats may support the neutering of the ethics watchdog too. We'll see if Nancy Pelosi can keep her troops in line.
If she can, there's a good chance this vote will fail.