NOTE: This is an updated version of a column originally posted earlier this morning:
Well, that didn’t take long.
As their first official action in launching the Age of Trump, the House Republican caucus voted Monday night to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. They voted in favor of taking an independent oversight agency with real power to hold members of Congress accountable and turn it into a toothless, voiceless hulk of its former self.
Put another way, the very politicians who sold themselves to angry voters as reformers instead tried to make it easier to sell themselves to lobbyists without detection or punishment. And while they were forced to back away from the plan Tuesday by a sudden public backlash — even Donald Trump questioned the timing of the move, but not its intent — the effort tells us a lot about where things are probably headed.
First, though, let’s review the history of the OCE, because it’s important:
A decade ago, Congress faced a serious crisis. Lobbyists such as Jack Abramoff were running amok, spreading campaign cash, lucrative gifts and the promise of well-paying jobs to members of Congress and their staffs. The House Ethics Committee, which was supposed to police such behavior, had instead become the place where all investigations and allegations were buried. The result was a congressional culture in which no real rules applied.
After a series of federal prosecutions on bribery and other crimes, however, Congress was forced to act. It created the OCE and placed it under the control of an independent, eight-member board of directors, all of whom are private citizens, with four members appointed by each political party. It was empowered to investigate all allegations of congressional misbehavior, and if it found cause for action, it was authorized to refer those cases to the House Ethics Committee.
Now look at the changes that House Republicans tried to impose:
- If the OCE board finds reason to believe that members of Congress broke federal law, they can refer those findings to federal prosecutors. In its vote Monday night, House Republicans tried to bar the agency from making such criminal referrals.
- Under current rules, the OCE is independent. It has no power to punish House members or staff, and no subpoena power, but it at least has free rein to conduct investigations and make recommendations. The House GOP wanted to strip the agency even of that freedom.
- Under current rules, the OCE can make its investigative reports public.¹ That provision is essential, because it makes it harder for the House Ethics Committee to sweep embarrassing allegations under the rug, as it has a history of doing. House Republicans voted to seal those reports from public view, and to bar the OCE board from making any public statement or even employing a spokesperson.
- The OCE can accept and investigate complaints filed anonymously, dismissing those that it finds unsubstantiated. Under the rules change endorsed by House Republicans, anonymous allegations could not be investigated regardless of how much merit they have.
Such changes had never been publicly proposed or debated and came as a complete surprise. Nonetheless, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia defended them as an improvement, claiming that it “builds upon and strengthens the existing Office of Congressional Ethics.”
That was a lie, and an insult to the intelligence of American voters. Politicians don’t strengthen ethics laws in secret, without warning or public debate. They act that way only when they’re ashamed of what they’re doing, and this time they got caught.
¹For example, when then-U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal of Georgia resigned his seat in 2010 one step ahead of congressional ethics investigators, the OCE board voted unanimously to release its report documenting "substantial reason to believe" that Deal had broken multiple House ethics rules.