On what should have been the first day of basking in GOP control of Congress, House Republicans managed to botch things with a misguided attempt to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. Worse, they did it by a secret vote on the day before the new session in their first act.
The blowback on Tuesday was immense, and included critical reaction from President-elect Trump, who plaintively tweeted, “do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority.”
In an ignominious reversal, House Republicans backed down, opting to preserve the OCE as is — for now.
But what looks like an outright victory may be only a stay of execution. Trump’s objection was primarily to timing, and he pointedly called the office “unfair.” The House Ethics Committee, which would have taken full control of the OCE under the initial proposal, still intends to review the plan and issue a recommendation later this year. A full 119 House Republicans supported stripping the OCE of its independence, so it seems likely that a second attempt will be made.
Doing so would be a terrible misreading of the electorate that voted in the new Republican majority. Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that trained most of its pre-election fire on Hillary Clinton, said the attempt to weaken the office was “shady and corrupt,” and a “poor way for the Republican majority to begin draining the swamp.”
Critics of the OCE accuse it of being overzealous and providing insufficient due process. If they want to make that case in public, let them. In the meantime, the facts should guide us. The OCE’s board is made up of private citizens appointed by the House speaker and the minority leader, who must approve one another’s selections. The office is strictly fact-finding. It cannot issue sanctions against a House member nor even recommend sanctions. That power lies with the House alone. The OCE does, however, make its findings public once an investigation is complete, and that is a powerful deterrent to bad behavior.
The board and staff of the OCE also are subject to some of the most scrupulous standards in government. They cannot work as lobbyists or be employed by the federal government and must pledge in writing not to seek public office for three years after leaving the office. They get no salaries, can accept no gifts, file annual disclosure statements and must participate in annual ethics training. A majority of the board can vote to disqualify any board member for conflict of interest or to recuse him or her for lack of impartiality. Would that every governmental office and agency operated under such standards.
Republicans should be looking for ways to improve the OCE. If there are excesses, curb them. But also search for ways to strengthen the office and its independence. And create a counterpart for the excessively clubby Senate, which conducts its own investigations in private and seldom disciplines a member.
It wasn’t just Trump and groups like Judicial Watch that pushed back on the rules change. Some House members found themselves inundated with calls and communications from constituents, infuriated at the attempt to neuter the watchdog office. If this election proved anything, it’s that public displeasure with an elite that plays by its own set of rules is real. This Congress ignores that sentiment at its peril.