Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Trump knocks House GOP after surprise vote to gut ethics panel
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., House Judiciary Committee chairman. (Photo: Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
In a closed-door meeting Monday night, House Republicans unexpectedly voted to all but destroy an independent ethics group that investigates them for wrongdoing. The move immediately drew intense criticism from Democrats and watchdog organizations, which portrayed the vote as a betrayal of the incoming Republican president’s campaign vow to “drain the swamp.”
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., offered the surprise amendment to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. The full Congress will vote on the entire rules package Tuesday, the first day of its new term.
Goodlatte’s move would change the name of the group from Office of Congressional Ethics to Office of Congressional Complaint Review, strip it of its independence, block it from investigating any wrongdoing that occurred prior to 2011, and prevent it from releasing its findings to the public, without the authorization of the House Committee on Ethics. The rules change would also prevent the panel from alerting law enforcement to criminal activity without the approval of the House committee.
On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump criticized the “timing” of the ethics vote, but called the group itself “unfair.” The president-elect took to Twitter to argue that House members should be focused on other legislative priorities.
“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,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic minority leader, said in a statement. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
“Poor way to begin draining the swamp,” tweeted Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, which had launched lawsuits over Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
The top ethics lawyers under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama said in a joint statement that Congress was “setting itself up to be dogged by scandals and ethics issues for years” and was returning the House to “dark days.”
The Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent entity run by five Republicans and five Democrats, and the members are not allowed to run for public office. The group, which publicly releases its reports, investigates tips from the public and elsewhere about potential rule-breaking by lawmakers. This year, the watchdog group asked the House Committee on Ethics to investigate Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., for paying for a personal family vacation with campaign funds, and Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., for potential conflicts of interest with his hedge fund.
Goodlatte claimed that the changes “strengthens the mission” of the ethics watchdog group while protecting the “due process” rights of House members and staffers.
Former Speaker John Boehner was a supporter of the Office of Congressional Ethics, but current Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., initially kept silent about it. An unnamed leadership source told CNN that Ryan opposed Goodlatte’s gutting of the office. He later issued a statement defending the changes.
The group was created in 2008 amid concerns that the House Committee on Ethics was not being aggressive enough in its investigations of its own members. The ethics committee investigates ethics violations only if another member of Congress suggests it, unlike the Office of Congressional Ethics, which takes tips from all sources.
In fact, in her 2008 floor speech before voting for the bill to create the office, Pelosi said its intention was to “drain the swamp.” Trump recently said that will always be the motto of his administration.