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House Republicans pass ethics changes that Democrats say would hamper probes

In a 220-213 vote largely along party lines, the House passed its rules package for the 118th Congress on Jan. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

The House on Monday passed a rules package that included changes to how ethics-related complaints about members of Congress are handled.

According to a summary of the GOP’s proposed rules changes released last week, the package imposes term limits of eight years for the eight board members of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent body established in 2008 that investigates complaints about sitting members of Congress. Any board members who have exceeded those term limits would be removed.

The rules package also requires the OCE board to appoint staff within 30 calendar days, and that the hiring and compensation of those staff members would need to be approved by at least four board members.

Democrats and liberal groups decried the proposed changes, saying they would hobble the way the OCE functions.

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

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Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with the liberal think tank Public Citizen, criticized the first provision as a way for Republicans to remove long-standing Democrats from the OCE board.

The second is to make it difficult for OCE to staff its office,” Holman said in a statement. “These are measures that will render the ethics office ineffectual and which no Member, from either party, should support.

Aaron Scherb, senior director of legislative affairs at the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause, said Monday the changes would “handcuff” and “significantly weaken” the OCE.

“After showing America how not to pick a Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy and his team are now showing America how not to design the Rules of the House,” Rep. Jamie Raskin said in a statement Monday that panned the rules package, including the components that he said would “undercut” the independent ethics office.

The rules package was at the center of negotiations over McCarthy’s speakership bid last week, as a group of hard-right GOP holdouts stalled his campaign until he agreed to their demands.

The concessions McCarthy made to hard-right Republicans include lowering, from five to one, the number of members required to force a vote on ousting the speaker — a change that the California Republican had previously said he would not accept.

In addition to changes to the OCE, the rules package would allow the public to file complaints directly with the bipartisan House Ethics Committee, which is composed of eight lawmakers and which investigates any alleged violations of the House rules by lawmakers or staff.

As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump reported last week, the timing of the changes to both the OCE and the House Ethics Committee is notable:

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.

Last week, the liberal American Bridge 21st Century super PAC filed a complaint with the OCE alleging that Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), who has admitted to fabricating or misrepresenting numerous details in his biography, falsified information on his financial disclosure reports.

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

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