On their first full day in power in 2017, House Republicans came close to gutting an independent ethics committee, one that was set up in the wake of scandals that arguably cost them power a decade ago.
They backed off at the last minute, under intense criticism from watchdog ethics groups and Democrats:
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) January 3, 2017
Even President-elect Donald Trump saw the political folly in pursuing this right now (though he appeared to support the notion of reining in the office):
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
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
........may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
But ethics experts are wary this fight simply got moved to another day -- there are plenty of Republicans and some Democrats who think the office has treated them unfairly and want to get rid of it. ("Nobody likes to have your career or your standards or your reputation scrutinized by people you have no control over," said congressional and ethics expert Norman Ornstein, who advocated for setting up the office.)
Let's dig in to why this little office is making big news -- and how Congress's battle with it may not be over.
What is the Office of Congressional Ethics?
It's the first independent body to oversee and investigate ethics complaints. It is led by eight people, four appointed by the House's top Republican, four by the House's top Democrat. None of them can be current members of Congress or even work for the federal government.
Its sole job is to investigate members of Congress — everything from allegations of campaign finance misuse to possible conflicts of interest to whether a trip or gift or business or investment is legal. Its mission, according to its website, “is to assist the U.S. House in upholding high ethical standards with an eye toward increasing transparency and providing information to the public.”
It launched in the wake of scandal
The House actually already has a committee set up to investigate lawmakers' ethical indiscretions: The House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers.
And shortly after embarrassing and politically costly scandals (the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal; the conviction of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for violating election law; the resignation of Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) amid allegations that he sent sexually explicit messages to congressional pages; bribery scandals involving former congressmen Randy “Duke” Cunningham and William J. Jefferson, just to name a few), lawmakers decided they needed more oversight than themselves.
After all that came the 2006 midterm elections, when Republicans lost control of the House for the first time in 12 years.
Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared her party wanted to “drain the swamp” (sound familiar?). She and then-Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) set up a task force to decide how to best do that, and they came up with the idea of an independent office to investigate lawmakers.
The Office of Congressional Ethics was officially set up in March 2008 — on a mostly party-line vote, notes the Brookings Institution's Molly Reynolds, (Democrats yea, Republicans nay) — and since then, it has investigated dozens of lawmakers.
Some notable findings by the office:
- That Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), a 2016 Senate candidate, may have improperly used his House office to handle a family-run hedge fund
- That 10 lawmakers and some of their spouses took an all-expenses-paid trip to the Caspian Sea in 2013 secretly funded by the state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan
- That then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) may have improperly used her leadership PAC funds for her 2012 presidential campaign
It's important to note that just because the office finds probable cause of wrongdoing doesn't mean there is an official determination of guilt, for reasons we'll get to below.
The office can investigate lawmakers, but it can't punish them
If the office finds that a lawmaker may have broken the law, it can't take any disciplinary action; all it can do is pass on its investigation to the House Ethics Committee with a recommendation that the committee pursue it. It also can (and almost always does) make its findings public.
Despite its limits, ethics watchdog groups said having an independent office to investigate members of Congress is a big step toward more accountability.
“It's awkward for members to judge themselves and their own colleagues,” said Thomas Mann, a senior congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution and an advocate for setting up the office. “Many other legislative bodies around the world set up some kind of independent body to do this, so these things don't simply get buried or handled in an explicitly political way.”
Watchdog experts say the referral from an independent office has made it harder for lawmakers in the ethics committee -- which is evenly split among Republicans and Democrats -- to just fall on party lines when deciding whether to punish one of their colleagues.
Republicans wanted to fold the two panels into one
House Republicans wanted to make two big changes to the office:
1. Fold it into the existing House Ethics Committee so it's directly under the purview of lawmakers
2. Prohibit the public release of the committee's findings
The sponsors of the change, led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), said this will give lawmakers who feel like they or their staffs have been wrongly investigated by the committee more due process. The summary of the change reads:
“Feedback from Members and staff having gone through review by the OCE has been that those under investigation need increased protection of their due process rights, greater access to basic evidentiary standards, and a process that does not discriminate against them for invoking those rights.”
The vote to bring the changes to the full House floor Tuesday was taken by secret ballot Monday night, and despite some opposition from its leaders, the House was expected to approve it in a rules package Tuesday afternoon.
But at the last minute, the proposal got pulled as Republicans faced intense pressure from Democrats and watchdog experts for trying to change the committee, and from their president-elect for trying to change the committee at the beginning of a new Congress.
NEW: House Republicans withdraw ethics changes for now, postpone to future date.
— Mike DeBonis (@mikedebonis) January 3, 2017
This is not the first time the office has been threatened — nor will it be the last
Every two years, a new Congress must decide whether to keep the office and fund it. And pretty much every two years, lawmakers in both parties have threatened to close or try to cut off funding for it.
Some lawmakers have claimed that the office treated them or their staffers unfairly; others don't like that the findings are made public. And that underscores a key thing to remember about this office: It may be independent when it comes to conducting investigations, but it relies on Congress to keep itself alive.
That's why ethics experts don't think this battle is over. Ornstein: "If this is about timing, or if they decided now there's too much heat for doing this, who knows at what subsequent point they could try to sneak this through when no one's looking."
The Senate does not have its own independent ethics body
Which is also worth noting.