House Republicans, Back In Charge, Move To Undercut Ethics Office

A few innocuous-sounding passages buried near the end of Republican’s new House rules package could gut the chamber’s independent, nonpartisan ethics office.

Established by the House in 2008, the Office of Congressional Ethics reviews allegations of misconduct against lawmakers and their staff. If the office determines it has a “substantial reason to believe” an ethics violation may have occurred, it refers the matter to the House Committee on Ethics, which consists of an equal number of lawmakers from both parties. In almost all instances, the office’s reports become public (unlike investigations the committee initiates).

In the last Congress, notable subjects of the Office of Congressional Ethics’ inquiries included Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), Alex Mooney (R-W.V.) and Marie Newman (D-Ill.). This session was shaping up to be a busy one for the office. Last month, 36 former members of Congress called on the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate lawmakers involved in the January 6th riot at the Capitol. The office might also be gearing up to investigate incoming Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) for, well, lots of things.

If the House passes the GOP’s new House rules, however, that work could get thrown off track. A clause on page 49 of the 55-page package would reinstate two four-year term limits for board members, which haven’t been enforced since 2014. It also could require the board to hire the office’s staff for the entire session within 30 calendar days of the rules package passing. Any new hires would require the approval of at least four board members. While those regulations may sound harmless, they could gut the office’s neutrality and staff.

The term limits would immediately remove three of the four Democratic members from the office’s board, but none of the four Republican board members would be dismissed. (Although members of each party chose the board’s members, they are supposed to perform their duties independently of their affiliation.)

It could be difficult to fill the newly vacated spots within 30 days, which might leave the board with just five members. That would, in turn, make it harder to hire new employees, as four votes would be required to extend a job offer. The change also would leave Republican-appointed members with almost total control of staffing decisions. Even at full strength, hiring personnel sometimes take months. The Office of Congressional Ethics, for example, has been looking to bring on an investigative counsel since at least August.

Some government watchdogs were quick to criticize the proposed change. “The Office of Congressional Ethics is essential for independent and nonpartisan ethics oversight and accountability in Congress. This is a disappointing development, Campaign Legal Center tweeted on Monday. According to a statement from the left-leaning nonprofit Public Citizen, “Today’s Republican party is rife with ethical transgressions. And it is now trying to make it much harder to hold members of Congress accountable to the standards of decency we expect.”

This Congress is not the first time Republicans have gone after the Office of Congressional Ethics. In 2017, House Republicans reversed their decision to eliminate the office after an outcry from voters and criticism from then-President Donald Trump.

Spokespeople for the House’s top Republican, Kevin McCarthy of California, did not immediately respond to an inquiry.

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