On January 2, before the new session of Congress started, House Republicans overwhelmingly approved an amendment proposed by Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia that would strip the independent Office of Congressional Ethics of some of its power. Ahead of the full Congress’ vote on a package of rules that will include Goodlatte’s proposal, President-Elect Donald Trump criticized Congress for focusing on the panel, although he still called it “unfair.”
The Hill reports that Goodlatte’s proposal has been dropped, but it still hinted at how Republicans plan to change Congress.
The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was established in 2008, when Nancy Pelosi was still House Speaker, as an independent body to investigate possible ethics violations by members of Congress. It is staffed by private citizens, none of whom can work for the federal government or be active members of Congress. The current acting Chair is Judy Biggert, who represented Illinois’ 13th Congressional district from 1999 to 2013.
Here’s a look at what the OCE does, why it was established and what Goodlatte’s proposal does.
1. Donald Trump Criticized Congressional Republicans for Wanting to Change the OCE, but Still Called the Office ‘Unfair’
Just a couple of hours before Republicans decided to back away from Goodlatte’s proposals, Donald Trump criticized Republican Representatives. However, it’s not because he didn’t want the OCE changed. It was because he thought that Republicans have more important things to do on the first day of the new Congress.
“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority,” Trump tweeted. “Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”
Although Trump continued to tweet on January 3, he did not further explain why he thinks the OCE is “unfair.”
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who was a member of the House when the OCE was set up, told Trump on Twitter that there is “nothing ‘unfair’ about it.”
2. The OCE Was Established After House Members Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham & William Jefferson Were All Sentenced to Prison
The OCE was established on March 11, 2008 after three members of Congress were sentenced to prison on bribery charges.
In 2006, Bob Ney of Ohio was forced to resign over his connection to the Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal. He was the only member of Congress convicted for deals with Abramoff. In 2007, The Washington Post reported that Ney was sentenced to 30 months in prison. He also had to pay a $6,000 fine and 200 hours of community service. Ney wrote a book in 2013 about his experiences called Sideswiped: Lessons Learned Courtesy of the Hit Men of Capitol Hill.
Duke Cunningham represented California in the House from 1991 to 2005. He was forced to resign after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes and not reporting his full taxable income for 2004. He spent seven years in prison and was released in June 2013.
The third member of Congress whose conviction inspired the creation of the OCE was William Jefferson of Louisiana. In 2009, Jefferson was sentenced for 13 years for taking $500,000 in bribes and asking for millions more. His sentence was the longest ever received by a Congressman.
3. The OCE’s Mission Is to ‘Assist the House in Upholding High Standards of Ethical Conduct’
As stated on the OCE’s website, the board’s mission is to “assist the House in upholding high standards of ethical conduct for its Members, officers, and staff and, in so doing, to serve the American people.” It has an eight-person Board of Directors, and all of its members must be private citizens who no longer work in the federal government or serving in Congress.
However, the OCE has to work very quickly. The first phase of an investigation, the “preliminary review,” has to be completed within 30 days and has to produce a “reasonable cause to believe allegations” before moving to the second phase for “further review.” The second phase has to be completed within 45 fays, although an additional 14 days can be added on.
If the second phase produces “probably cause to believe allegations,” the findings are then handed to the House Ethics Committee with a recommendation for or against further investigation of the allegations. If the OCE suggests that there should be a further investigation, the findings must be released to the public.
During its investigation, the OCE does not have the power to issue a subpoena.
4. The OCE Conducted Investigations Into Michele Bachmann & Charles Rangel
The OCE has played a role in major investigations of important House members since its creation. In February 2010, it recommended to the House Ethics Committee that Charles Rangel’s attendance of a conference in St. Martaan needed a Congressional investigation. In July 2010, Rangel was accused of 13 ethics violations. Although he remains in Congress, Rangel did receive a censure.
In 2013, the OCE conducted an investigation into Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign. Bachmann represented Minnesota’s sixth district in the House from 2007 to 2015. The OCE recommended that the House Ethics Committee investigate Bachmann because “there is substantial reason to believe that Representative Bachmann authorized, permitted, or failed to prevent, by not taking reasonable steps to ensure that her leadership PAC operated in compliance with federal campaign finance laws, the use of leadership PAC funds to compensate a campaign consultant for work he performed for her presidential campaign, resulting in a contribution from the leadership PAC to the presidential campaign in excess of the legal limit.”
Bachmann announced her plans not to run for Congress in 2014, so the ethics investigation was dropped.
The OCE most recently recommended that the Ethics Committee investigate Marlin Stutzman of Indiana for an August 2015 trip to Los Angeles with his family. There are allegations that he used funds from his Senate campaign for the trip, which included personal trips not related to campaigning.
5. Goodlatte Says His Proposal Would Have Built ‘Upon and Strengthens’ the OCE & Gave it a New Name
Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who introduced the proposal to chance the OCE, defended his amendment, saying that it would have strengthened the office. He said in a statement:
“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. It also improves upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify. The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work.”
Goodlatte proposed making the OCE directly under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee and renaming it the “Office of Congressional Complaint Review.” However, this was seen as a way to undermine the independent aspect of the OCE.
“Additionally, because of the sensitive and confidential nature of the investigations, the amendment provides protections against any disclosures to the public or other government entities, and requires that any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the Members,” Goodlatte said on his site.
Nancy Pelosi quickly responded to Goodlatte’s proposal, which was approved without any prior notification on January 2.
“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. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress,” Pelosi said in a statement.