The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Republicans again set their sights on ethics watchdogs

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington on Dec. 22. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)

From the outset, Republicans were opposed to the creation of an independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

The idea arose in the 110th Congress, soon after Democrats had regained control of the House. Their success in the 2006 election was attributable in no small part to a spate of scandals that ensnared sitting representatives. The House was viewed as tainted, and Democrats seeking election pledged to tackle that perception. In March 2008, the House narrowly passed a resolution creating the OCE, with 159 of 192 Republicans voting against it.

Before that vote, the leading Republican on the House Ethics Committee released a memo from committee staffers objecting to the idea. After all, the OCE would create an independent body tasked with investigating complaints about sitting members — moving the process outside of the members’ direct oversight. This wasn’t the ostensible objection, of course, but as The Washington Post noted at the time, it certainly contributed to the concerns.

On the strength of Democratic support, though, the OCE was established. And when Republicans opened new congresses with the House majority in 2017 and 2023, they took steps to kneecap it.

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Both the OCE and the formal House Ethics Committee have the same broad composition and ostensible mission. Both are bipartisan, the latter made up of eight sitting representatives, four from each party, and the OCE eight members with the same partisan makeup, though only six of those members have voting power. Both entities are charged with investigating ethical questions related to members of the House or their staffs.

But the OCE is generally recognized as having undertaken its role with more vigor and skepticism. When House Republicans planned to uproot the agency in 2017, The Post outlined a number of revelations that were attributable largely to the OCE’s work, including probes into both Democrats and Republicans. But Republicans coming into the majority nonetheless voted before the start of the 116th Congress to subjugate the OCE to the House Ethics Committee.

“Under the proposed new rules, the office could not employ a spokesman, investigate anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee, which would gain the power to summarily end any OCE probe,” The Post reported at the time. That said, “[t]he move to place the OCE under the Ethics Committee’s aegis stands to please many lawmakers who have been wary of having their dirty laundry aired by the independent entity.”

For obvious reasons, Republican leaders weren’t thrilled about the idea of kicking off their new, unexpected unified control of Washington by undercutting an independent ethics body. The not-yet-inaugurated Donald Trump, who’d run on the idea of “draining the swamp,” offered his public opposition on Twitter. The idea collapsed. Two years later, Democrats were again in the majority.

On Tuesday, Republicans again took control of the House and, again, advanced plans to hobble the OCE. This time, the idea isn’t to simply to make it a toothless appendage of congressional power, but instead to make it harder for the OCE to do its work. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the proposal “would place term limits on the eight-person OCE board, an action that would remove three of four Democratic board members. The new rules would also limit OCE from hiring any staff after 30 calendar days from when the rules package is approved, meaning the office couldn’t hire new people after a month from Tuesday.” Any new hires would also need approval of at least four board members — meaning at least one voting member from each party.

“This is a very smart way to do it,” Kedric Payne of the Campaign Legal Center, a former OCE deputy chief counsel, told Time. “Because it looks as though the office still lives, but in fact it doesn’t.”

The timing is interesting. Before it adjourned at the end of the just-ended 117th Congress, the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot recommended that the House Ethics Committee investigate the refusal of several Republican members of Congress to respond to requests for information the committee had sent. That was never likely to go anywhere; the new Congress’s Republican control not only meant that the select committee was doomed, but it also meant that there would be little appetite for follow-up on a committee now chaired by a member of the GOP.

The OCE certainly could. Its mandate includes looking at violations of “law, rule, regulation, or other standard of conduct” by members of the House. Unless, of course, it lacks the staff to do so.

The new proposal to weaken the OCE was advanced as part of a proposed rules package cobbled together as Republicans prepared to take power. Those preparations, of course, were derailed a bit when Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) failed to earn enough votes to be elected speaker in the first round of voting Tuesday.

His relationship to the OCE is interesting. He opposed instantiating it in the 2008 vote, but as a member of the Republican leadership in 2017, pushed to remove the ethics amendment from the party’s proposed rules package. His stated concern, as The Post reported at the time? It wouldn’t get the 218 votes needed to be put into effect.

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