House Republicans Pivot on Gutting Ethics Unit

WASHINGTON (CN) – Chastened by public backlash, and a carefully worded tweet from the president-elect, House Republicans withdrew a plan they adopted in secret Monday night to gut an ethics unit that investigates corruption.

A full vote on the measure had been scheduled for Tuesday afternoon – the start of the 115th session of Congress – after a conference of House Republicans passed the measure 119-74 on Monday night.

Coupled with widespread outcry, President-elect Donald Trump ushered in a change of course this morning with a Twitter post that criticized both the ethics unit and the Republicans who voted to weaken it.

“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority,” Trump tweeted. “Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance.”

The amendment if enacted would rechristen the Office of Congressional Ethics as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review. Congress originally established the independent office in 2008 to investigate allegations of illegal behavior by lawmakers and other federal officials.

Over the last eight years, the office’s investigations helped spur the bribery convictions of two Republican House representatives, Duke Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio, and one Democrat, William Jefferson of Louisiana. Each served time in jail.

In addition to the name change, more significant effects of the Monday vote would include stripping power from the investigative office and giving lawmakers expanded control over internal inquiries.

Rep. Robert Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who pushed for the rule change, also chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

“Because of the sensitive and confidential nature of the investigations, the amendment provides protections against any disclosures to the public or other government entities and requires that any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by members,” Goodlatte said in a statement on Monday.

Another change in the amendment would be to limit how long the office can wait to begin an inquiry.

“The board of the office may not undertake a review of any alleged violation that occurred before the 112th Congress,” the amendment states. It also forbids anonymous complaints.

Overseen by a six-member board, the office is staffed by attorneys who investigate claims of impropriety. The office has never had subpoena power and that will not change.

The attorneys typically collect information and documents pertaining to the ethics complaints received. All of this is done before announcing findings that may constitute a violation of federal law.

Traditionally, OCE’s board then takes a vote on whether it should refer the findings to the House Ethics Committee, which conducts its own review.

Tom Rust, chief counsel and staff director for that committee, declined Tuesday to comment.

The committee places all submissions it receives in a public report, even if they amount to nothing more than unfounded claims. Historically, that report has served as a check and balance, deterring illicit behavior by lawmakers who may not wish to see their names tied to the deeds in print.

The planned Office of Congressional Complaint Review would not take any anonymous complaints, on the other hand. And all investigations would be turned over to the House Ethics Committee itself. This could create some potential conflicts of interest since a committee is often made up of lawmakers with party loyalties.

Another stipulation laid out in the amendment restrains the board from employing a press spokesperson or communications liaison.

The watchdog organization CREW, short for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, issued a statement criticizing Monday’s vote. Norman Eisen, who chairs the organization and once served as a top ethics attorney for President Barack Obama, said the decision undermines “the independence of the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics” and will “create a serious risk to members of Congress who rely on OCE for fair, nonpartisan investigations.”

Just weeks earlier, CREW and 16 other ethics watchdogs submitted a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and minority leader Nancy Pelosi thanking them for the implementation of the OCE.

Noting it as “one of the stellar ethics accomplishments of the House of Representatives,” the organizations commended the former Office of Congressional Ethics as a “qualified and neutral agency,” which “has helped change a secretive and oft-perceived moribund ethics enforcement process into a reasonably more accountable and active system.”

“To the credit of both congressional parties, the congressional ethics process is no longer viewed as merely a means to sweep the problems under the rug,” the Dec. 21 letter said.

Minority leader Nancy Pelosi didn’t mince words in her response to the Monday vote.

“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,” Pelosi said. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the New Republican Congress.

“The amendment Republicans approved would functionally destroy the office,” Pelosi added. “Congress must hold itself to the highest standards of conduct. Instead, the House Republicans Conference as acted to weaken ethics and silence would-be whistleblowers.”

Re. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, declined in an email to comment on the sudden shift.