After electing Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker of the House in the wee hours of Saturday morning, Republicans postponed a planned vote on the proposed rules package that will govern the House during the 118th Congress. That means there’s still time to save the Office of Congressional Ethics from emasculation.
Because nearly 9 in 10 House Republicans were elected in 2010 or after, a brief history lesson is in order: The OCE was established in 2008 on the recommendation of a bipartisan task force that spent a year studying how to clean up Congress after a slew of scandals, from those of Jack Abramoff and Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) to those surrounding Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), William J. Jefferson (D-La.) and Mark Foley (R-Fla.). The Ethics Committee, which is composed of sitting House members and stays evenly split between Republicans and Democrats regardless of who is in control, had been too timid in pursuing allegations of wrongdoing by fellow lawmakers. The idea was to create a separate office of nonmembers who didn’t have conflicts of interest to serve as a screening mechanism to sift through allegations that might otherwise get swept under the rug, referring those who deserved more scrutiny to the Ethics Committee.
Since its founding, the OCE has referred more Democrats (52) than Republicans (50) to the Ethics Committee for further investigation. Lawmakers in both parties have had misdeeds exposed because of the OCE that might never otherwise have come to light. In 2015, the office revealed that Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company secretly funded an all-expenses paid trip to a junket on the Caspian Sea for 10 lawmakers (six Democrats, four Republicans), where they accepted gifts of silk scarves, crystal tea sets and rugs. The OCE is the only House body that has aggressively looked into potential insider trading by members and their spouses.
The current system makes it harder for politicians to cover for each other than it used to be. The OCE has no subpoena power or ability to punish members. But the Ethics Committee is required to eventually release the referrals it receives from the OCE, even if it chooses not to follow up. This serves as a deterrent against questionable behavior by members, even if they have close friends on the committee.
It’s unsurprising lawmakers don’t want independent scrutiny. Some who have found themselves forced to answer uncomfortable questions about their conduct have compared the ethics office to a star chamber, an unaccountable body with little transparency. But the proposed rules package makes clear that members and staff are still entitled to due process, legal representation and all other constitutional rights, which would include the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. With these protections in place, there is no need to gut the office, too.
This is not the first time lawmakers have tried to defang the independent ethics watchdog. In January 2017, House Republicans voted behind closed doors to take away the office’s independence, putting it underneath the Ethics Committee, but they reversed course the next day after then-President-elect Donald Trump slammed the idea on Twitter. It was antithetical to his campaign promise to “drain the swamp.” Notably, Mr. McCarthy voted against weakening the OCE back then.
If ever there was a time for an independent ethics watchdog, it’s in a Congress that includes newly elected Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), whose lies about his qualifications are already notorious.
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The proposed rules package isn’t all bad. It directs Mr. McCarthy to establish a bipartisan task force to conduct a comprehensive review of ethics regulations and submit a report. If a member is charged with a crime, the Ethics Committee would be required to impanel an investigative subcommittee within 30 days to review the allegations or submit a report explaining why it didn’t. And the committee is directed to begin accepting complaints directly from the public.
In a perfect world, Congress would codify the powers of the OCE into law, rather than making it depend on House rules that get rewritten every two years. Ideally, investigators would get subpoena authority. And the Senate, which does not have its own independent ethics body, would create something similar.
Gutting the independent ethics watchdog as the first official act of the 118th Congress is clearly not what Americans wanted when they voted in the midterms. We fear that tying the hands of the OCE, especially limiting the ability to hire staff, would invite a new era of corruption. If the rebels who made Mr. McCarthy sweat all week are sincere that their goal is good government, protecting the OCE would be one way to show it.
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