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House Republicans just voted to gut the independent office overseeing their ethics

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Rep. Bob Goodlatte led the charge to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics.
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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

One of the steps Congress will take after new members are sworn in Tuesday: getting rid of the independent office that’s supposed to make sure that members of Congress are acting ethically.

House Republicans voted 119-74 Monday evening to all but eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics. Right now, it’s an independent office, created after lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to trying to bribe members of Congress, that can investigate allegations of corruption and unethical behavior and disclose its findings to the public.

House Republicans voted on a measure Monday night — on a federal holiday, with no advance public notice, and reportedly despite opposition from leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy — that would eliminate both the office’s independence and its ability to communicate with the public. The full House of Representatives will vote on the proposal Tuesday as part of a new package of congressional rules.

The Office of Congressional Ethics would no longer be independent: House Republicans voted to put it under the control of the House Ethics Committee, meaning that lawmakers — and in practice, the Republican majority — would be in charge of the office that’s supposed to be investigating them.

The office would no longer be allowed to speak to the public independently and would be formally barred from hiring a spokesperson, according to a draft of the rules change obtained by the New York Times.

The House committee could force the office to stop an investigation at any time, and the office would be prevented from accepting and investigating anonymous tips. The office would no longer be able to relay an issue to law enforcement if it determines a crime is committed.

And the new rules would rename it the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, rather than the Office of Congressional Ethics, as if to underscore its utter lack of importance. (Who doesn’t have some kind of complaint about Congress?)

All of this seems to directly contradict President-elect Donald Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC. And combined with Trump’s own extensive conflicts of interest, it could make it easier for lawmakers to get away with corruption.

The Trump administration could be historically corrupt

The Office of Congressional Ethics only has jurisdiction over Congress. It doesn’t oversee the executive branch. The president and his appointees are overseen by the Office of Government Ethics, which is still an independent agency.

But getting rid of independent ethics oversight for Congress just as Trump takes office suggests that members of Congress could end up being less than serious about holding him accountable — and could signal a wider acceptance of corruption for at least two reasons.

First, although House Republicans said they were concerned about the effect that ultimately false but publicly disclosed accusations could have, the steps they’re taking go much further than simply restricting disclosure. They suggest Republicans in Congress don’t think an independent overseer is necessary at all.

That matters because Congress is the only entity that could hold Trump responsible for his conflicts of interest — for example, income that he receives from foreign entities through his hotels or his refusal to sell his business while in office. Essentially getting rid of the independent overseer of Congress’s own ethics doesn’t send a signal that Congress is likely to take these matters seriously.

Second, research on the effects of corruption has found that it’s contagious. Trump has a historic number of conflicts of interest that present unprecedented opportunities for corruption. House Republicans now can follow the example the president sets, without an independent office to hold them accountable in public for any misdeeds that might result.

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