Voting in secret to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics was a dubious start for the new Congress. At least House Republicans had the good sense to reverse themselves Tuesday after taking widespread criticism, including from Republican President-elect Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Still, it is troubling that the first thing the Republican majority did in the 115th Congress was to try to eliminate the independent agency charged with investigating potential ethics violations. That the vote to do so was done in secret the day before Congress convened exacerbates the problem and underscores that the more Congress promises change, the more things stay the same.
The Office of Congressional Ethics was created in 2008 after a series of congressional scandals involving corruption and bribery. The independent board investigates potential ethics violations involving members of Congress and/or congressional staff. Based on its findings, the office makes recommendations to the House Ethics Committee on penalties to pursue.
Nonpartisan staff runs the OCE, and a board of directors appointed by Republicans and Democrats provides oversight.
On Monday, GOP House members voted to strip the OCE of its independence, moving it under the control of the House Ethics Committee and renaming it the Office of Congressional Complaint Review. By putting it under the House Ethics Committee, the move in essence gave the House the authority to police itself for ethics violations.
Congressional critics of the OCE felt the office was too aggressive in pursuing violations and that investigations should not be made public until after the House Ethics Committee ruled. Virginia's Rep. Bob Goodlatte, House Judiciary chairman, pushed through the ethics change despite warnings from some. The vote was 119-74 in favor. Many House Republicans, including some from Kansas, wouldn’t say how they voted Monday.
The backlash was immediate. Trump tweeted his criticism Tuesday morning. “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,” Trump posted.
As the criticism mounted, House Republicans called an emergency meeting Tuesday and reversed their decision. Give them credit for grasping the optics of their initial vote.
“We were elected on a promise to drain the swamp and starting the session by relaxing ethics rules is a very bad start,” said GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California.
McClintock is spot on. House Republicans started the session with a completely avoidable, self-inflicted black eye. Trump, on the other hand, deserves credit for being unafraid to do what so many of his predecessors have refused to do — call his party out when it deserved it.