D.C.

House Republicans secretly gutted an independent ethics watchdog and put it under their own control

[UPDATE, 9:47 am, 1/3/17] According to various breaking news reports, House Republicans held an “emergency conference” on this Tuesday and rescinded their proposal to gut an independent oversight committee. Read the story here

House Republicans are starting the new Congress by diminishing oversight of themselves.

In a secret ballot brought forth hours before the new Congress was set to begin, House Republicans chopped down an independent ethics watchdog, putting it under their own control.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was set up to investigate corrupt members of Congress, but is now significantly less powerful. According to The Guardian, the move was done in defiance of GOP congressional leadership and was supported by “several legislators currently under OCE scrutiny.”

The amendment was voted through by the House Republican conference over the New Year’s holiday with no prior notice or debate and inserted in a broad rules package the House will vote for on Tuesday. It turns the formerly independent OCE into the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, a subordinate body to the House Ethics Committee, which is currently run by the Republican majority and has a long history of overlooking charges of malfeasance by lawmakers.

The new body will not be able to receive anonymous tips from members of Congress or make its findings public.

With the GOP controlling the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government, the vote removes the remaining shackles that limited their power. President elect Donald Trump, who has come under increasing scrutiny for his alleged conflicts of interest, could also benefit from the weakened oversight.

The vote has been met with overwhelming condemnation from Democrats and ethics experts.

“Undermining the independence of the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics would create a serious risk to members of Congress, who rely on OCE for fair, nonpartisan investigations, and to the American people, who expect their representatives to meet their legal and ethical obligations,” Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, ethics counsels to Barack Obama and George W. Bush, said in a joint statement.

“If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining OCE it is setting itself up to be dogged by scandals and ethics issues for years and is returning the House to dark days when ethics violations were rampant and far too often tolerated.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi weighed in on the vote as well.

“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,” Pelosi said in a statement, according to The Guardian.

The move to weaken the OCE was not made public until Monday, when House Judiciary Committee chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-VA) announced that the House Republican Conference had approved the change — with no advance warning or debate on the measure.

The OCE was created in 2008 in the wake of corruption scandals involving two Republicans and a Democrat.

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