In a secret move (that turns out not to be very secret), House of Representative Republicans voted 119-74 in favor of a sweeping changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).
The Washington Post reports that this clandestine meeting took place “behind closed doors,” in spite of the wishes of House leaders, including, surprisingly, Paul Ryan. The vote means that when Congress begins its 2017 session, the OCE will officially be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and instead of existing as an independent committee, it would now be under control of the House Ethics Committee – essentially ensuring that any ethics matters would become political issues, and investigations would be at the whim of the majority of the committee (which reflects the majority party in the House of Representatives).
The Post goes on to explain more tangible effects of this change:
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.
The OCE was created in 2008 to address concerns that the Ethics Committee had been too timid in pursuing allegations of wrongdoing by House members. Under the current House ethics regime, the OCE is empowered to release a public report of its findings even if the Ethics Committee chooses not to take further action against a member.
They go on to say that these changes are certain to please many lawmakers who, “have been wary of having their dirty laundry aired by the independent entity.”
CNN spoke with representatives from several government ethics watchdog groups, including Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. They offered a stern message, saying that the OCE “has played a critical role in seeing that the congressional ethics process is no longer viewed as merely a means to sweep problems under the rug. If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining (the ethics office), 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.”
Nancy Pelosi also weighed in on Twitter.
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) January 3, 2017