Monday's effort was led, in part, by lawmakers who have come under investigation in recent years.
Despite a warning from Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Republicans adopted a proposal by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to put the Office of Congressional Ethics under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee.
The office currently has free rein, enabling investigators to pursue allegations and then recommend further action to the House Ethics Committee as they see fit.
Now, the office would be under the thumb of lawmakers themselves. The proposal also appears to limit the scope of the office’s work by barring them from considering anonymous tips against lawmakers. And it would stop the office from disclosing the findings of some of their investigations, as they currently do after the recommendations go to House Ethics.
President-elect Donald Trump ran on a platform of draining the swamp of an often all-too-cozy Washington D.C. Monday night’s moves go in the opposite direction, severely loosening oversight of lawmakers' potential conflicts of interest, use of campaign money and other ethical matters.
“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," snarked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement after news of the secret-ballot vote. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."
The vote to declaw the OCE was orchestrated by several members who felt they had been wrongfully accused of unethical behavior by the OCE, according to several sources in the room. The sources said several members currently or formerly under the OCE's microscope stood up to support the pitch, which was eventually adopted by a vote of 119 to 74.
One of those was Rep. Blake Farenthold, the Texas Republican who was accused by a former staffer of sexual harassment. The OCE recommended in September 2015 that the Ethics panel drop a probe of the matter, but Farenthold did not like the way the case was handled. A court later threw out the staffers' lawsuit as well.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) also spoke in support of the measure. The Ethics Committee, at the behest of OCE, had probed whether Roskam accepted an impermissible gift when he and his wife traveled to Taiwan in October 2011. The Ethics Committee approved the Roskams’ trip beforehand as permissible under federal law, but OCE believed the Taiwanese government and not the Chinese Culture University — the official sponsor — “was conducting and organizing his trip.”
The Roskams’ daughter was also staying in Taiwan at that time, and OCE noted that the Roskams sought to include her as part of their itinerary for the $24,000-plus trip. Roskam strongly denied any improper or unethical behavior, and the Ethics Committee eventually dropped the case.
Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) also vocally supported the amendment. They or their staff had come under OCE's microscope.
Democrats created the Office of Congressional Ethics in March 2008 after the Abramoff scandal, in which the well-connected GOP lobbyist plead guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials. Abramoff and his clients had used campaign donations and favors to sway members, including former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who served 30 months in prison, and a number of staffers.
Their idea was that an outside agency of sorts could take up a more robust oversight of members. Republicans, however, have claimed the group has been too aggressive in making referrals.
Under the Goodlatte proposal, the OCE would be renamed the “Office of Congressional Complaint Review," according to a summary of the House rules amendment obtained by POLITICO. It "places the office under the oversight of the Committee on Ethics.”
The provision would "provide protection against disclosures to the public or other government entities," essentially sealing accusations against lawmakers. Currently those investigations are made public several months after the OCE refers the matter to the Ethics panel.
Watchdog groups were already blasting the move.
“Undermining the independence of the House's Office of Congressional Ethics would create a serious risk to members of Congress," said the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in a statement issued later Monday.
"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."
Goodlatte defended his proposal in a statement: “The amendment ... 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.”
The proposed change will be included in a package of new House Rules governing the 115th Congress, which will be voted on Tuesday afternoon.
Author: RACHAEL BADE and JOHN BRESNAHAN