By Katherine Gregg
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — An attempt by U.S. House Republicans to gut ethics oversight of members of Congress unraveled on Tuesday, but not before a tsunami of denunciations from the president-elect, the House GOP leadership and many others, including Rhode Island’s own Democratic Congressmen.
Before the House GOP reversed course, U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., said: “It’s a new year and a new low for House Republicans, opening the 115th Congress by stripping critical oversight and accountability procedures from the Office of Congressional Ethics.”
House Republicans had voted behind closed doors Monday night to curtail the power of an independent ethics office created in the wake of scandal.
“I cannot understand how anyone could justify voting for this measure. The Office of Congressional Ethics is currently an independent, non-partisan entity. The office has, historically, been able to investigate wrongdoing by members of Congress, including anonymous reports by whistle blowers. By stripping this office of its power and instead transferring oversight to the House Ethics Committee – into the very hands of those who could be subject to such investigations – House Republicans have betrayed the trust of their constituents.
“This is a disheartening start to the new Congress, to say the very least,” Langevin said. “This is a time of uncertainty for so many in this country, and reducing accountability and transparency, effectively giving Members of Congress a free pass, does nothing to alleviate the very real concerns of those questioning who and what their elected leaders truly represent.”
Added U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., after House Republicans moved to temporarily table their effort to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics:
“Just hours after attempting to kill the Office of Congressional Ethics and strip it for parts, Republicans have apparently decided to listen to their constituents. It’s critical that, in the weeks ahead, we don’t allow them to return to the days of thinly-veiled bribes, kickbacks, and much worse; a time when an open culture of corruption ruled Washington, D.C.”
“The fact is we need more ethics reforms, not less,” Cicilline said. “That’s why I have been fighting for all members to undergo annual ethics training…Since the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics, disciplinary actions by the House Ethics Committee have quadrupled.”
“It speaks volumes that the first thing Republicans attempted to do in the new Congress was weaken ethical standards, and they only backed down once their efforts were exposed to public scrutiny.”
“This is not what the American people sent us here to do. After the last few hours, it’s clear that Republicans don’t want to drain the swamp – they want to fill it up,” he said. “This is wrong, and it’s critical that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents continue to hold their Members of Congress accountable and demand they adhere to the highest ethical standards.”
Both were reacting to the stunning late-night announcement, by U.S. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, that the House Republican Conference had voted 119-to-74 to place the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) under the control of a House Ethics Committee.
As explained by the Washington Post: Under the proposed new rules, the office could not employ a spokesperson, 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.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, voiced opposition to the move.
President-elect Donald J. Trump slammed the weakening of ethics scrutiny in back to back Tweets that said: “With all that Congress has to work on, 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. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS.” The hashtag presumably refers to his election catch phrase: “drain the swamp.”
Goodlatte defended the action on Monday night, saying it would strengthen ethics oversight in the House while also giving lawmakers better protections against what some of them have called overzealous efforts by the Office of Congressional Ethics.
But Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, joined others who had worked to create the office in expressing outrage at the move and the secretive way it was orchestrated.
“Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House G.O.P. has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions,” Ms. Pelosi said in a statement on Monday night. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
The body was created after a string of serious ethical issues starting a decade ago, including bribery allegations against Representatives Duke Cunningham, Republican of California; William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana; and Bob Ney, Republican of Ohio. All three were ultimately convicted and served time in jail.