US House Republicans vote to rein in ethics office

Washington, Jan 3 (IANS) US House Republicans, overriding their top leaders, voted to rein in an independent ethics office set up in 2008 in the wake of a series of embarrassing congressional scandals, the media reported.

The move to effectively kill the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was not made public until late Monday, when Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that the House Republican Conference had approved the change.

The 119-to-74 vote during a GOP conference meeting means that the House of Representatives rules package was expected to be adopted later on Tuesday, the first day of the 115th Congress, reported the Washington Post.

The move would rename the OCE as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review (OCR) and then it would be required to report to the House Ethics Committee, which had been accused of ignoring credible allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, spoke out during the meeting to oppose the measure.

“Poor way to begin draining the swamp,” Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, said on Twitter. He added, “Swamp wins with help of @SpeakerRyan, @RepGoodlatte.”

The surprising vote came just before the start of a new session of Congress, where emboldened Republicans are ready to push an ambitious agenda on everything from healthcare to infrastructure.

The House Republicans’ move would take away both power and independence from an investigative body, and give lawmakers more control over internal inquiries.

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.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi expressed outrage at the move and said that the GOP “has acted to weaken ethics and silence would-be whistleblowers” and that the proposed arrangement “would functionally destroy” the OCE.

The Office of Congressional Ethics has been controversial since its creation and has faced intense criticism that its investigations were more aggressive than those conducted by the House Ethics Committee.