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The Republican attempt to neuter the House ethics watchdog, explained

House Republican Leadership Speak To Media After Their Weekly Conference
House Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy reportedly opposed the push to put the ethics office under the committee’s influence.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
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.

Late in the evening on a federal holiday, behind closed doors and with no public record of how members of Congress voted, House Republicans voted to advance a proposal to eviscerate the independent watchdog overseeing their ethics.

Then — after a public outcry and two critical tweets from President-elect Donald Trump — they reversed course. At least for now, the Office of Congressional Ethics will live another day.

But House Republicans still plan to tackle the matter through a bipartisan report later in the year. And the controversy made for a tumultuous beginning to the new term of Congress, as House Republicans clearly misjudged the public mood on corruption issues and were subjected to a withering backlash as a result before backing down.

Though the office itself might be little-known outside Washington, it’s pursued more than 150 investigations into allegations that members of the House of Representatives acted unethically — shining a public light on behavior that would have gone unnoticed in the past and leading to more penalties for unethical acts than in earlier eras.

And though many House Republicans argue that the office has overreached in its investigations, their attempt to gut the ethics watchdog right after a campaign in which they’d harshly criticized Hillary Clinton’s ethics proved politically indefensible — for now, at least. Trump is plagued by his own conflicts of interest, but it turns out that seeming to enable corruption is still politically toxic.

Why the Office of Congressional Ethics exists

Back in 2008, the House of Representatives voted to create the Office of Congressional Ethics, the first-ever independent watchdog for its members, in an attempt to respond to the body’s worst bribery and corruption scandal in decades. Yet the new office quickly became a thorn in some lawmakers’ sides.

For many years, the only people with oversight over ethics in Congress (outside of traditional law enforcement agencies who prosecute outright lawbreaking) were members of Congress themselves, who can vote as a committee to discipline errant members. Until the late 1960s, there were no official procedures for the institution to deal with unethical conduct at all. House committees were responsible for looking into possible unethical conduct and disciplining members who were guilty of it.

But that system was rife with conflicts of interest, and in the early 2000s, a massive scandal made clear it had failed. Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations executive Michael Scanlon had conspired to cheat Indian tribes they hired to represent out of millions of dollars. Abramoff also bribed members of Congress, federal officials, and congressional staff with campaign contributions, expensive meals, and tickets to sporting events. Twenty-one people, including congressional aides, Bush administration officials, and lobbyists, were eventually convicted in connection with the case.

Democrats seized on Washington’s “culture of corruption” — including the Abramoff scandal and another scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican accused of sending sexually explicit messages to teenage boys serving as congressional pages — as a campaign theme in 2006. So after retook Congress, they set up the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics as an independent watchdog. While the new office couldn’t compel anyone to testify or punish members of Congress for wrongdoing, it could look into tips and complaints and refer its conclusions to the House committee for further investigation.

The office has aggressively pursued corruption allegations

In the past 18 months, the Office of Congressional Ethics found “substantial reason to believe” several lawmakers could have violated ethics rules. According to its findings, there is evidence that:

  • Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a Republican from Indiana, used campaign funds to pay for a family trip to Universal Studios and the Reagan library in Southern California.
  • Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, kept paying a communications director who no longer worked for him for several months.
  • Rep. Roger Williams, a Republican from Texas, voted on a transportation bill that could have affected his business as owner of a car dealership.
  • David Bowser, the chief of staff to Rep. Paul Broun, a Republican from Georgia who resigned his seat in 2014, misled the office’s investigation into whether he had paid a communications adviser for work on his campaign in defiance of ethics rules and federal law.
  • Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, worked as a hedge fund manager while serving in Congress.
  • Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, could have violated federal laws and ethics rules by appearing in a video for video game company Riot Games, and for getting a makeover from a menswear company in his district.

The House Committee on Ethics is still investigating many of these reports, and it already dismissed the accusations against Polis. If history is any guide, it’s likely to do the same with several of the other allegations.

But in the past, accusations like this would have been swept under the rug entirely unless Congress decided to pursue them. Establishing an independent investigator and making its reports public shone a much brighter light on dealings in Congress that, at the very least, look shady, even if the House ethics committee ultimately determined not to take further action.

In the five years after the office was established, many more members faced some kind of consequences for unethical behavior: 20 members of Congress were disciplined between 2009 and 2014, up from just 10 in the previous 11 years, according to a report published in 2014 by the advocacy group Public Citizen. (The majority of those disciplined since 2009 were Democrats; Republicans have controlled the House since the 2010 midterm elections.)

That’s much fewer than the number of reports that the office found to be substantiated, so Congress was still going pretty easy on its members. But it’s clear that having an outside watchdog that publicly disclosed its findings made a difference.

“Having an independent body out there to make recommendations to the ethics committee is absolutely appropriate,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, in an interview.

House Republicans’ attempt to change the office went badly awry

Yet support for the office was always polarized, with Republicans at first arguing that House committees could ensure ethical behavior on their own. And in the past few years, many key House Republicans have run afoul of the office and profess to feel unfairly treated by it. So on Monday night, they tried to seized their opportunity to finally get rein the office in.

The solution proposed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chair of the House Judiciary committee, was to gut most of the office’s powers — eliminating its status as an independent watchdog. The office would have needed permission from a bipartisan majority on the committee to even open an investigation, meaning whatever party controls Congress could have shielded its members any time it wants.

The office wouldn’t have been allowed to tell the public about its investigations. It wouldn’t have been permitted to accept anonymous tips. It couldn’t have told law enforcement if a crime has been committed. And, as if to underline its new, powerless status, it would have been renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review.

But the surprise vote behind closed doors Monday night led to an outcry. Top Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, reportedly opposed changing the rules to put the ethics office under the thumb of the committee. Democrats and ethics groups, including right-leaning ones such as Judicial Watch, criticized the change. And stories about the House GOP’s move went viral online and reportedly led to a flood of calls to congressional offices.

President-elect Donald Trump, who campaigned on his pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington, weighed in with two tweets. He criticized the office as “unfair” but said members of Congress had the wrong priorities in going after it:

House Republicans reversed course, according to the Washington Post, after their leaders gave them an ultimatum: back away from the changes or debate them in public on the House floor with a recorded vote for who supported the change. Led by Ryan, they voted to remove the changes to the ethics office from the package of congressional rules.

This fight isn’t over

Republicans haven’t given up on their dream of getting rid of the office, according to the Washington Post. The issue has just been shelved momentarily. The House Ethics Committee is supposed to make a bipartisan report on the future of the office before the August recess and recommend changes.

Nor is this the last time that Congress will have to deal with the issue of corruption or a potential clash between the president-elect and elected legislators from his own party. Trump campaigned on “draining the swamp,” and his criticism of lawmakers’ focus on the ethics office appears to have held sway. Yet Trump himself also has more conflicts of interest, and thus the potential for corruption, than any previous president.

The question is whether Republican members of Congress, who have now been reproved on an ethics-related matter by the president-elect, will be willing to focus on his own ethical misdeeds. Until the reversal, House Republicans sent a clear signal that they thought accusations of corruption and unethical behavior among their own ranks were overblown. We’ll soon find out whether they’ll think the same of the executive branch.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the actions that the Office of Congressional Ethics investigated regarding Jared Polis. He didn’t appear in a commercial or advertisement, although the appearances were later used by the companies in their marketing.

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