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In secret meeting, House Republicans vote to gut independent ethics office

In a late-night, secret meeting, House Republicans voted to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics: “Behind closed doors, the caucus voted to approve an amendment to a broader House rules package that would put the office under the House Ethics Committee and significantly restrict its authority. The House will vote Tuesday on the rules […]

By Melissa McEwan - January 03, 2017
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Bob Goodlatte

In a late-night, secret meeting, House Republicans voted to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics: “Behind closed doors, the caucus voted to approve an amendment to a broader House rules package that would put the office under the House Ethics Committee and significantly restrict its authority. The House will vote Tuesday on the rules package as members open the 115th Congress.”

It is a breathtaking signal that the incoming Republican-led Congress will not concern itself with ethics — except insofar as finding ways to diminish accountability for its own ethics breaches.

The change includes moving the independent Office of Congressional Ethics into the purview of the House Committee on Ethics, which is run by members of Congress, meaning that representatives would be charged with holding each other accountable for reported ethics violations.

Clearly, this scenario is rife for abuse, as the Committee is run by Republicans, who have further empowered themselves with the right to tell the ethics office to stop any investigation.

The office will also no longer be allowed to accept or consider anonymous allegations, which effectively puts a halt to whistleblower complaints; will not consider any misconduct that took place before January 3, 2011, irrespective of when the misconduct was discovered; and cannot release any information to the public unless it has already been released by the Office of Congressional Ethics.

And in a final egregious change, the office cannot investigate criminal complaints or turn criminal allegations over to law enforcement.

That means, for example, that if someone were sexually harassed or assaulted by a member of Congress, they would have to report under their real name; their case would not be automatically referred to law enforcement; and the investigation would halt immediately if so directed by the House Committee on Ethics.

There is no way to view this maneuver as anything but an attempt to shield corrupt Republican members of Congress.

In a statement, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi 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.”

Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, the chair and vice chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a joint statement:

OCE is one of the outstanding ethics accomplishments of the House of Representatives, and it has played a critical role in seeing that the congressional ethics process is no longer viewed as merely a means to sweep problems under the rug.

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.

And DNC Deputy Communications Director Eric Walker said in a statement that House Republicans are following President-elect Donald Trump’s example of corruption, by “attempting to cripple the independent entity that deals with ethics in Congress.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics was created to prevent the kind of corruption that appalled voters the last time the Republicans had one-party control in Washington. By crippling the OCE, House Republicans are signaling a return to the days of Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay, when Republican corruption in Congress ran rampant. Americans who were misled by Trump’s empty promise to drain the swamp should be livid at this latest corrupt power grab by Washington Republicans.

As should those of us who knew — and said, over and over — that Trump was making an empty promise, and whose warnings were not heeded.

Trump and his cronies have been treating the swamp like their own personal spa, and now House Republicans have decided to wade right in, too.

Far from holding Trump accountable on any of his many axes of emergent corruption, Congressional Republicans are basking in the glow of the tacit permission his smoldering hostility for established rules and norms has given them.

We are about to enter what is shaping up to be the most unchecked and imbalanced governance in the nation’s history.


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