(Representative Bob Goodlatte, who proposed the changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics)
The Republican majority in the House of Representatives rang in the new year with a sudden and surprising move to make the independent watchdog Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) answer to the House Ethics Committee. A day after the push began it ended underneath a hailstorm of criticism from Democrat legislators, the public and Republican leadership – including President-Elect Donald Trump.
The OCE is a governmental watchdog organization run by a bipartisan panel filled mostly with lawyers and former legislators that investigates allegations of corruption in the House of Representatives. This organization has come under scrutiny from legislators in both parties because of the particularly aggressive way it investigates cases and because the public nature of the cases make them easy to manipulate for political purposes. House Republicans sought to make the organization respect due process more by making it have report and answer to the House Ethics Committee and by barring it from accepting anonymous allegations.
Proponents of the changes argue it helps prevent the OCE from being used by politicians to anonymously attack opponents with a spurious charge that can cost serious money and repute to rebuff. Representative Goodlatte claimed the amendment “does nothing to impede their work,” arguing it only improved and moderated the OCE. Opponents argue that it puts the watchdog entirely in the hands of those it is supposed to monitor and could potentially gut the OCE. Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch claimed the move was a way to “hamstring this critical ethics watchdog behind closed doors.”
If the House Republicans could defend their motives it was harder to defend their means. Convening during holiday in a private session, they launched the move to change the OCE without consulting the any House Democrats and without the express support of Republican leadership. They made the change as an amendment to a wider rule package as well, making it seem as if they were sneaking the measure through. Making the move even more suspect, it was supported by several congressman who had been investigated by the OCE.
By the end of January 3rd a large public outcry and a disapproving tweet from Trump settled the matter, but for Republicans it was a poor start to the year. The abortive amendment publicly displayed the disorganization and divide within party ranks, poor strategic planning, and did not accord with Trump’s central campaign policy to drain the swamp in D.C. Since the Republican Party holds both chambers of government and the Presidency missteps like these squander valuable time and strength.