President Elect Donald Trump hit the nail on the head when he posted a Tweet about changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics established in 2008 when Democrats held the majority.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) is drawing fire for attempting to promote the changes as an amendment that “strengthens the OCE’s mission”, saying the changes will “improve due process rights for those subject to an investigation, and ensure that complaints made by the public have a strong venue for review.”
As news broke on the proposed changes, media took a very critical approach, billing the amendment as “eviscerating” the watchdog body that is technically supposed to be nonpartisan.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who may have been annoyed the amendment was placed into the Rules package for the new Congress, sought to reassure the public, including these remarks in a statement he issued:
“With the amendment adopted last night, the bipartisan, evenly-divided House Ethics Committee will now have oversight of the complaints office. But the Office is not controlled by the Committee, and I expect that oversight authority to be exercised solely to ensure the Office is properly following its rules and laws, just as any government entity should. I have made clear to the new Chair of the House Ethics Committee that it is not to interfere with the Office’s investigations or prevent it from doing its job.”
The changes are detailed in several pages within the larger rules package. For instance the name of the watchdog will be changed from the Office of Congressional Ethics to the Office of Congressional Complaint Review. Other changes include oversight by the US House Committee on Ethics and prohibiting consideration of anonymous allegations. A clampdown on information released to the public is also part of the changes. It’s likely many Americans didn’t realize there were actually two different entities dealing with Congressional ethics.
Proponents like Goodlatte believe the changes will enhance due process for a member accused of wrongdoing, while critics like minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) see the changes as a negative.
The debate begs the question of whether the ethics issue itself has become overtly politicized at a time when both parties are often at odds with each other on policy and negative campaigning has become the standard on both sides of the aisle.
Watchdog group Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton was very critical, saying on Tuesday, Jan. 3:
“The American people will see this latest push to undermine congressional ethics enforcement as shady and corrupt. The full House should seriously consider whether it wants to bear the brunt of public outrage and go through with the rule change this afternoon.”
Trump questioned the changes, but more importantly, framed them in a manner many Americans might agree with. Trump [@realDonaldTrump] tweeted:
“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. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”
Few if any media have pointed readers to the actual text of the proposed changes in the Rules package, but for readers who are interested, that section begins on page 36 of H.Res.5 ‘Adopting Rules for the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress.’
Goodlatte posted a detailed defense of the changes on his House web page.
Update: The House decided to forego changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics. An article at Yahoo News explains it, although the headline is false. The amendment would not have “gutted” the OCE although the changes would have limited the office’s scope. In my opinion, reform to the group may well be necessary but as PE Trump noted, there are far more pressing matters to attend to first.
(Filed by Kay B. Day/Jan. 3, 2017)
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