WHAT in the world was Bob Goodlatte thinking?
That’s what a lot of people are wondering after the congressman from Roanoke schemed with other House Republicans to gut their chamber’s independent ethics office, despite objections from their leaders, Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Goodlatte said the changes would “strengthen” the office—pure Orwellian double-speak.
The behind-closed-doors change by the House Republican Conference, approved 119–74 by secret ballot without advance notice or public debate, ignited a fierce backlash within hours of its announcement by Goodlatte late Monday night.
By early Tuesday afternoon, after spirited criticism from government watchdogs, Democrats and some Republicans, House members unanimously voted to reverse course.
Earlier, angry constituents had bombarded lawmakers’ offices about the House conference’s action to strip the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics. People took to Twitter to declare “Swamp: 1. House GOP: 0.”
Among the critics was President-elect Donald Trump, who questioned the move’s timing, given his party’s announced intentions to repeal Obamacare and overhaul the tax code. “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, health care and so many other things of far greater importance!” Trump wrote.
Another tweet came from Tom Fitton, president of the conservative Judicial Watch group that so bedeviled Hillary Clinton over her email server. “Poor way to begin draining the swamp,” he wrote.
The fiasco eclipsed other news on the first day of the 115th Congress. “It’s like a circular firing squad—our first day here and we’re passing around the handgun,” Rep. Rod Blum, R–Iowa, told The Wall Street Journal.
The changes championed by Goodlatte, who represents Virginia’s 6th District, would have meant the office couldn’t investigate anonymous tips, employ a spokesman or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without express consent from the House Ethics Committee. The committee would have been empowered to summarily dismiss any probe by the independent OCE, and given oversight of the office.
The House-rules amendment by Goodlatte, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, passed although Ryan and McCarthy argued that changes to the ethics office should be bipartisan. Several of the members who argued privately for Goodlatte’s move had come under its microscope, or their staff members had, POLITICO reported.
This battle isn’t over, since some Democrats as well as Republicans still want to cripple the office. Ethics Committee chair Susan Brooks of Indiana said her panel will study changes to the office and deliver a proposal before the House recesses in August. That plan should be divulged in broad daylight, and not voted on until the public has had time to fully consider—and comment on—what it would do.
House members seem to have forgotten why the office was created in the first place—to save them from their own excesses and keep faith with their constituents.
Not having independent ethics investigators “is like letting the middle school kids be in charge of the principal’s office,” former White House counsel Richard Painter told the Journal.
The office examines possible violations of House ethics rules by members of Congress and their aides, and recommends to the Ethics Committee whether to pursue penalties. It is run by a nonpartisan staff and overseen by eight independent directors appointed by Republicans and Democrats.
The idea was that lawmakers can’t be trusted to keep tabs on themselves. Traditionally, the Ethics Committee is where ethics investigations are sent to die.
The office was created after pay-to-play scandals snared Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other GOP figures in the mid-2000s when Republicans ran the House. Those controversies helped Democrats win control of the House in the 2006 election.
But this isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a simple matter of good government.
With voters’ distrust of Congress now at an all-time high, more sunlight—not less—is needed to disinfect Washington’s ways. If public scrutiny causes congressmen or aides some pain or expense, so be it.
An independent and fully empowered Office of Congressional Ethics is essential to discourage temptation and deter misdeeds.