Political Malpractice Saved the Ethics Office

For now.

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, arrives for the opening of the 115th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 3, 2017. / AFP / JIM WATSON
U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, arrives for the opening of the 115th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 3, 2017.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The 115th Congress was scheduled to convene at noon in the House with the speaker’s election and members’ swearing in. Just minutes before that scheduled ceremony, though, the incoming House Republican Caucus convened in the basement of the Capitol Visitors Center. This was an emergency meeting, called for the purposes of reversing the abrupt decision to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics on Monday night. Whoops.

As they walked into the meeting, members had two main responses when asked whether the proposed rules change should be reversed. The first was along the lines of we’ll see!

“We’ll have to see what transpires,” Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers said.

“I’m gonna go find out,” Rep. Darrell Issa of California, suddenly the representative of a swing district, said.

The other response was I wasn’t here last night.

“I wasn’t here last night, so I didn’t hear the debate,” Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy said. “I have some concerns based on what I’ve read. But I also want to have a chance to speak to my colleagues who have gone through the [ethics investigation] process and do have some concerns about due process.”

The complaints about the Office of Congressional Ethics, established in 2008 following the Jack Abramoff scandal of the mid-2000s Congress, pertain to its independence. With oversight, the thinking goes, the OCE might be less of a pain because it would be controlled by the people it seeks to investigate—a reform that, though they might not admit to it while Republicans are in the process of self-wounding, some House Democrats might like, too.

The rules-package amendment promulgated by Rep. Bob Goodlatte and passed Monday night by the House Republican Conference would have put the OCE under the aegis of the House Ethics Committee. The inconvenient word ethics would be struck from the office’s name altogether. It would become the “Office of Congressional Complaint Review,” a title carrying slightly more gravitas than the congressional mail room. The proposal would prevent the OCE from disclosing any information to the public—sealing itself to the public, essentially—and explicitly bars it from hiring a communications director or press secretary. In short, under the new rules, the OCE would handle all ethics complaints against members in the dark and be managed by the House Ethics Committee, which, like all committees, would be controlled by Republicans. Gutting is an appropriate word to describe the changes, though Goodlatte himself preferred the term “strengthening.”

Goodlatte’s late spin didn’t pass muster, and even friendly partners were upset about the timing of the change. Speaker Paul Ryan had spoken out against pursuing it in the meeting Monday night. And on Tuesday morning, Donald Trump threw House Republicans overboard, criticizing them for their timing in “weakening” the entity he referred to as the “Independent Ethics Watchdog.” Within about 90 minutes of Trump’s tweet, House Republicans were meeting. It was a quick convention. Goodlatte himself stood to withdraw his amendment; it was eliminated through unanimous consent; and members rushed out to begin the new Congress.

Those who had supported the proposal, or were at least open to discussing it, described the intra-caucus objections as matters of timing and process, not of content. For example: It was probably not prudent timing or good process to move secretly to gut an office with the word ethics in its name the night before the new Congress starts, when dozens of members aren’t even present for the vote.

“I could tell, a lot of members had been getting calls—I had been getting a lot of calls,” North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones said. “And of course, with the world that you young people live in, where we tweet tweet tweet tweet like a bird, you know, it’s all over the country.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Jones said, recommended that the caucus take this up as a separate issue: “Have the debate in the [House Ethics] Committee, Democrat and Republican, and try to get something out [of committee] by the August break.” Jones, who also was not present for Monday night’s meeting, said it was “absolutely” a mistake to try to push the changes through like this.

Members don’t want to make a big public fuss over gutting the OCE. That’s why Republicans sought to change it quietly before the Congress even began. (They would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the young people and their Twitter birds.) Pushing a reform through usual order—i.e., in the public spotlight—will not be a comfortable proposition, either. But Jones was onto something when he said Republicans need Democratic buy-in on such a move. Many House Democrats, privately, are also not huge fans of an independent committee that can disclose ethics investigations into them that may never blossom into serious charges but could damage their political careers. By handling this privately, Republicans were doing Democrats a favor: neutering a nettlesome office on a unilateral basis that left them vulnerable to lay-up attacks.

The political malpractice of it all may have done the Goodlatte proposal in, but the dream of eliminating ethical oversight lives eternal.

“Folks are reading it as we’re backing off from ethics because of the headline,” Virginia Rep. Dave Brat said afterward. “And it has more to do with just how we’re going to move forward with it. We’re still going to do it, now we just want to make sure we can [say] to the American people, we’re still serious about [ethics], we’re still going to do it, and we’re going to open it up to bipartisan discussions and go from there.”

“It should be dealt with in a bipartisan way,” Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert agreed. Though other members, like Jones, were citing angry constituents, Gohmert claimed that he’d heard from none before the vote. He expects more as this develops into a publicly debated issue, and that he’ll have to “educate” them on the problem. He offered me a preview of the talking points.

“Right now in America you have two entities that don’t have to abide by the Constitution, and that’s the IRS and the OCE,” he said. He spoke darkly of the OCE as a sort of rogue entity that’s “out of control.” The OCE referred investigations for 10 members to the Ethics Committee in the last Congress. Four of those 10 were members of the House Freedom Caucus, of which Brat himself is a member, and with whom nonmember Gohmert usually votes. Marrying the independent investigator of congressional ethics with the IRS as the real problems in Washington will be a tough sell for these members as the debate moves forward. But it’s what they’re going with.

“Everyone in America should have accountability,” Gohmert said. “The OCE has none right now.”