"Re-branding" the Congressional Ethics office is problematic at best

While there are clearly some opportunities for reform in the operation of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), I have to wonder who exactly in the House GOP leadership thought that this was a good idea. The House Republican caucus voted yesterday to amend the rules package with a number of sweeping changes to the operation of the Ethics Office, effectively placing it back under the direct control of the Ethics Committee. They had some valid complaints about how the office currently operates and the effect it can have on members of Congress, but they seem to have chosen to go after a mosquito with a shotgun rather than a flyswatter. (Bloomberg)

Behind closed doors, the caucus voted to approve an amendment to a broader House rules package that would put the office under the House Ethics Committee and significantly restrict its authority. The House will vote Tuesday on the rules package as members open the 115th Congress.

The approval of the amendment, proposed by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, comes amid promises from President-elect Donald Trump to “drain the swamp.” Trump has also proposed several steps aimed at limiting corruption in Washington, including term limits on lawmakers and restrictions on lobbyists.

“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,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”

Blake Neff at the Daily Caller described the move as one which would effectively, “make the rebranded OCE a partisan political organ.” That might be a bit stronger than I’d have chosen to describe it, but it’s certainly troubling, both from a functional standpoint and the simply ugly political optics which are already going up in flames.

The defense of these changes being put forward by Goodlatte and others makes some valid points, as I said at the top. When the OCE acts on anonymous sources, sends out press releases and spurs criminal investigations they can wind up costing the members vast sums in legal fees and damaging their reputations, even if they are eventually found to be completely innocent of the accusations. Some measure of due process is owed to the members, as with anyone else in the country. But these changes go much, much further.

First of all, putting the OCE back under the direct control of the Ethics Committee removes the sense that they are “independent” in any sense. That’s like a police department handing over control of the Internal Affairs unit to the police union. The changes also call for barring the OCE from releasing information to law enforcement without the consent of the committee, eliminating their ability to speak directly to the media and allowing the committee to order them to halt any given investigation. Even if you have some sort of justification for each line item, this simply reeks of “gutting” the purpose of the OCE and the Democrats are already jumping all over the proposal.

You might think something like this wouldn’t have a chance of passing, but I’m not so sure. The caucus vote was 119-74, so if that many Republicans are against it, the measure (sure to be opposed by every Democrat) would fail. But it’s not being voted on as a standalone item. It’s part of the larger House rules package, so most of the GOP will likely be stampeded into approving it just to avoid an embarrassing internecine battle as soon as the new Congress is seated.

We knew there were fights coming as the management changes hands and a lot of the battles are long overdue. But… this? Was this really the first bloody war the House GOP wanted to fight? Not to echo what the Democrats are already screaming from the rooftops, but this is pretty much the opposite of “draining the swamp” in a public relations sense, if not in reality. While it would be a short term embarrassment, there’s still time to back away from this plan before the horses are entirely out of the barn. The GOP needs to reconsider this measure.