Tuesday, January 3, 2017

House Republicans vote to weaken Congressional ethics watchdog

U.S. House Judiciary Chair, Bob Goodlatte and
Dean of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Conyers, Jr.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Republican members of the House voted Monday to strip the independence from the Office of Congressional Ethics, bringing the non-partisan watchdog under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee -- some of the people it is designed to keep an eye on.
The House Ethics Committee will now have jurisdiction over the Office of Congressional Ethics, which also will be restricted from investigating anonymous tips against lawmakers, must keep information about investigations secret and sets a statute of limitations on how long the office can investigate members of Congress.
The unexpected changes to the OCE are part of the House Rules to govern the new Congress that representatives will vote to adopt on Tuesday and represent a move some say increases the chance for corruption and wrongdoing.
Va. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who proposed the amendment, announced its adoption for the new rules package after a meeting of the House Republican Conference.
While Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and House majority leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy opposed the measure, stripping the OCE of its independence was approved by an overwhelming 119 to 74 vote at the conference.
"The amendment builds upon and strengthens the existing Office of Congressional Ethics by maintaining its primary area of focus of accepting and reviewing complaints from the public and referring them, if appropriate, to the Committee on Ethics," Goodlatte said in a statement Monday. "The O.C.E. has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work."
The ethics panel was created after a series of corruption and lobbying scandals in Congress by Nancy Pelosi when she was speaker of the house, and was maintained by former Speaker John Boehner, to keep an eye on members of Congress. Before its creation, many had concerns that the House Ethics Committee was not strong enough in its pursuit of ethical violations.
"Gutting the independent ethics office is exactly the wrong way to start a new Congress," Chris Carson, spokesperson for League of Women Voters, told CNN. "This opens the door for special interest corruption just as the new Congress considers taxes and major infrastructure spending."
Where the OCE currently considers allegations brought to it, and releases reports on its investigations after they have been presented to the House Ethics Committee, the new rules require OCE not to disclose information from investigations.
The rule expected to be adopted Tuesday also sets a statute of limitations for OCE, restricting it from investigating reports older than the previous three Congresses, amounting to a six-year window.
The investigative body has been criticized harshly by some members of Congress, often those who have been investigated by it, with some attempting to take legislative measures to limit its actions. For some, the potential passage of a rule bringing OCE under Congressional oversight -- effectively allowing members of Congress to police themselves -- raises some serious concerns.
"Republicans claim they want to drain the swamp, but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions," Pelosi said Monday night in a statement. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."
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