WASHINGTON – House Republicans have voted to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent body created in 2008 to investigate allegations of misconduct by lawmakers after several bribery and corruption scandals sent members to prison.
The ethics change, which prompted an outcry from Democrats and government watchdog groups, is part of a rules package that the full House will vote on Tuesday. The package approved Monday also includes a means for Republican leaders to punish lawmakers if there is a repeat of the Democratic sit-in last summer over gun control.
In a closed-door meeting, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., argued against making a unilateral ethics change, pressing for a bipartisan approach at a later date, but rank-and-file Republicans defied their leadership.
The 119-74 vote reflected the frustration of many lawmakers who have felt unfairly targeted by the OCE, but it was a setback for leadership caught off guard by the swift action.
Under the ethics change pushed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics would fall under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers. It would be known as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and the rule change would require 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," according to Goodlatte's office.
Lawmakers would have the final say on their colleagues under the change.
Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, reacted angrily.
"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," the California Democrat said in a statement. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."
In a statement, Goodlatte said the rules 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."
U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., spoke in favor of the measure, Politico.com is reporting. Roskam's district includes southeast McHenry County. A trip Roskam made with his wife to Taiwan was referred to the House Ethics Committee by the OCE over allegations it was paid for improperly. The committee declined to pursue any action against Roskam after investigating.
Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, said she had not talked to him directly about the issue but that under the previous system there had been "overzealousness" in going after lawmakers. "We don't want people wrongly accused," she said Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
But others said the new system would make it easier for corruption to flourish under Ryan and his leadership team.
"We all know the so-called House Ethics Committee is worthless for anything other than a whitewash — sweeping corruption under the rug," Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters, said. "That's why the independent Office of Congressional Ethics has been so important. The OCE works to stop corruption and that's why Speaker Ryan is cutting its authority. Speaker Ryan is giving a green light to congressional corruption."
The OCE was created in March 2008 after the cases of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who served more than seven years in prison on bribery and other charges; as well as cases involving former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who was charged in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., convicted on corruption in a separate case.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.