WASHINGTON — House Republicans, overriding their top leaders, voted Monday to significantly curtail the power of an independent ethics office set up in 2008 in the aftermath of corruption scandals that sent three members of Congress to jail.
The move to effectively kill the Office of Congressional Ethics was not made public until late Monday, when Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, announced that the House Republican Conference had approved the change. There was no advance notice or debate on the measure.
The surprising vote came on the eve of the start of a new session of Congress, where emboldened Republicans are ready to push an ambitious agenda on everything from health care to infrastructure, issues that will be the subject of intense lobbying from corporate interests. The House Republicans’ move would take away both power and independence from an investigative body, and give lawmakers more control over internal inquiries.
It also comes on the eve of a historic shift in power in Washington, where Republicans control both houses of Congress and where a wealthy businessman with myriad potential conflicts of interests is preparing to move into the White House.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, spoke out to oppose the measure, aides said Monday night. The full House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the rules, which would last for two years, until the next congressional elections.
In place of the office, Republicans would create a new Office of Congressional Complaint Review that would report to the House Ethics Committee, which has been accused of ignoring credible allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers.
Goodlatte defended the action in a statement Monday evening, saying it would strengthen ethics oversight in the House while also giving lawmakers better protections against what some members have called overzealous efforts by the Office of Congressional Ethics.
“The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work,” the statement said in part.
But Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, joined others who worked to create the office in expressing outrage at the move and the secretive way that it was orchestrated.
“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,” she said in a statement Monday night. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
The Office of Congressional Ethics has been controversial since its creation, and subject to intense criticism by many of its lawmaker targets — both Democrats and Republicans — as its investigations have consistently been more aggressive than those conducted by the House Ethics Committee.
It was created after a string of serious ethical cases starting a decade ago, including bribery allegations against Represntatives Duke Cunningham, a California Democrat; William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat; and Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican. All three were convicted of such abuses, and served time in jail.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, which is overseen by a six-member outside board, does not have subpoena power. But it has its own staff of investigators who spend weeks doing confidential interviews and collecting documents based on complaints it receives from the public or media reports before issuing findings that detail any possible violation of federal rules or laws. The board then votes on whether to refer the matter to the full House Ethics Committee, which then conducts its own review.
But the House Ethics Committee, even if it dismisses the potential ethics violation as unfounded, is mandated under House rules to release the Office of Congressional Ethics staff report detailing the alleged wrongdoing, creating a deterrent to such questionable behavior by lawmakers.
Under the new arrangement, the new Office of Congressional Complaint Review could not take anonymous complaints, and all of its investigations would be overseen by the House Ethics Committee itself, which is made up of lawmakers who answer to their own party.
The new Office of Congressional Complaint Review also would have special rules to “better safeguard the exercise of due process rights of both subject and the witness,” a move that is likely a reflection of complaints by certain lawmakers that the Office of Congressional Ethics staff investigations were at times too aggressive, an allegation that ethics watchdog groups dismissed as evidence that lawmakers were just trying to protect themselves.
“OCE is one of the outstanding ethics accomplishments of the House of Representatives, and it has played a critical role in seeing that the congressional ethics process is no longer viewed as merely a means to sweep problems under the rug,” a statement issued by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an ethics watchdog group that has filed many complaints with the Office of Congressional Ethics said.
“If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining OCE, it is setting itself up to be dogged by scandals and ethics issues for years and is returning the House to dark days when ethics violations were rampant and far too often tolerated.”
One Republican House aide disputed the suggestion Monday night that the Office of Congressional Complaint Review is a new entity, arguing that the staff that now works for the Office of Congressional Ethics would remain largely the same and the outside board overseeing it would also continue to exist.
“It’s the same office, same people, most of the same rules,” said the House aide, who did not have authorization to speak on the record.
Among the most prominent cases first brought by the Office of Congressional Ethics, since it was created, include an investigation into Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, who was accused of intervening with the Treasury Department to attempt to assist a struggling bank in which her husband owned stock.
Waters was cleared of allegations of wrongdoing by the House Ethics Committee, but it criticized the actions of her grandson, who served as her chief of staff, and urged the House to consider broadening the ban on lawmakers hiring their relatives to include grandchildren.
By moving all of the authority within the Ethics Committee, several ethics lawyers said, the House risked becoming far too self-protective of members accused of wrongdoing.
Bryson Morgan, who worked as an investigative lawyer at the Office of Congressional Ethics from 2013 until 2015, said that under his interpretation of the new rules, the members of the House Ethics Committee could move to stop an inquiry even before it was completed.
“This is huge,” Morgan, who now defends lawmakers targeted in ethics investigations. “It effectively allows the committee to shut down any independent investigation into member misconduct. Historically the ethics committee has failed to investigate member misconduct.”