WASHINGTON – One day before the new Congress convenes, House Republicans voted Monday night to rein in an independent ethics office that investigates potential wrongdoing by lawmakers.
The move guts a major piece of an ethics overhaul Congress undertook after several high-profile scandals sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others to federal prison.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics, launched in 2008 to address concerns that the lawmaker-run House Ethics Committee failed to adequately police members of Congress, now would be subject to oversight by the House Ethics Committee, under the proposed rules package adopted by Republican lawmakers. The new rules also would bar investigators from reviewing anonymous complaints against lawmakers.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, known as OCE, would be renamed the “Office of Congressional Complaint Review."
The independent ethics office, which has had the power to launch investigations and publicly release reports detailing the results of their probes, has long clashed with the ethics panel and the lawmakers it has investigated.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., opposed the move to limit OCE's powers during Monday night's gathering.
But Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who crafted the OCE rules, said the change was needed to grant better “due-process rights for individuals under investigation." He said it still maintains OCE’s “primary area of focus of accepting and reviewing complaints from the public and referring them, if appropriate, to the Committee on Ethics.”
The move comes as Republicans prepare to take control of Congress and the White House for the first time in eight years and pursue an aggressive agenda to roll back regulations and policies enacted during the Obama administration.
Democratic leaders and ethics watchdogs swiftly denounced the Republicans’ move Monday night and called it a stealth maneuver to eviscerate the OCE without public debate.
“Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Monday night.
"Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress," she added.
“In shameful act, @BobGoodlatte6 moves to gut House Office of Congressional Ethics,” Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute wrote on Twitter. “House Republicans say goodbye to ethics! Despicable move.”
Several ethics watchdogs, who have called on President-elect Donald Trump to divest his business enterprises before taking office, also sought to tie the Republicans’ moves on Capitol Hill to Trump, who made "draining the swamp" a mantra of his presidential campaign.
Trump has said he will turn over his real-estate and branding empire to his two adults sons and executives to manage. In an effort to reduce potential conflicts, he and his family have announced plans in recent weeks to shutter family foundations and have settled disputes with workers at Trump hotels. But few details have emerged on how Trump will distance himself legally from his vast holdings.
“The House Republicans are taking a cue from the leader of the party in their flagrant disregard for ethics,” said Norm Eisen, who served as President Obama’s top ethics lawyer and is chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. He called the OCE “one of the gems of our system of checks and balances.”
“If this is what one-party rule looks like in the era of Trump," Eisen said, "I do not believe the American people will stand for it for very long."
The change to OCE is part of a larger rules package approved by House Republicans on Monday night that still must be approved by the full Republican-controlled House when it convenes Tuesday for the new 115th Congress.