House Republicans late Monday, without notice or debate, took a preliminary vote on a measure that will effectively eliminate an independent board set up to investigate violations of Congressional ethics standards. In doing so, the author of the measure declared that the move actually “builds upon and strengthens” the role of the ethics watchdog.
Welcome to Washington in 2017, an Orwellian place where words, apparently, mean whatever politicians want them to mean.
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This should come as no surprise. The nation is preparing to swear in a President-elect who campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington while simultaneously refusing to provide the public with his tax returns and who has still not provided any explanation of how he plans to avoid the conflicts of interest between his duties as president and his ownership of a multinational business.
Without facing serious objection, he has installed his own children, who will be running his business, on the transition team in charge of selecting the regulators who those businesses will have to answer to. If that’s what draining the swamp looks like, can anyone blame House Republicans for wanting to get in on the act?
The announcement Monday night of an amendment to the House Rules came from the office of Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who authored the amendment gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog panel established in 2008 in response to a lobbying scandal that sent several members of Congress to prison for influence peddling.
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The OCE was given the authority to initiate investigations into potential violations of ethics rules by members of the House. If it found sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, the OCE board could vote to submit a recommendation to the House Ethics Committee to begin formal proceedings.
Even if the Committee declined to pursue a case recommended by the OCE, the details of the recommendation were later made public, a measure meant to deter members from quashing valid allegations of corruption or malfeasance.
The new rules, set to be finalized today, strip the OCE of both independence and transparency. A copy obtained by The New York Times can be found here.
Operating under a new name, the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, the body will require the de facto permission of the Committee on Ethics to conduct an investigation. That's because the Ethics Committee, under the new rules, can shut down any investigation it wants to: “Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, upon receipt of a written request from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct that the board cease its review of any matter and refer such matter to the Committee, the board shall refer such matter immediately to the Committee and cease its preliminary or second-phase review, as applicable, of that matter, and so notify any individual who is the subject of the review."
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What’s more, the OCCR will be explicitly barred from making any information public -- to the point of being barred from hiring “any person for a position involving communications with the public, including a communications director or press spokesperson.”
In a statement issued Monday, 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.”
But Democrats and outside ethics watchdogs felt very differently.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who was Speaker of the House when the OCE was created, said in a statement, “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.”
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Norman Eisen, former top ethics attorney for the Obama administration, and Richard Painter, who served in the same role under George W. Bush, issued a joint statement as Chair and Vice Chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
It said, in part, “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.”
They added, “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.”