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Amid House Chaos, Watchdogs Urge GOP to Abandon Plans to Gut Ethics Commission

The House GOP majority is poised to dismantle the Office of Congressional Ethics after it settles on a far right leader.

Rep. Jim Jordan speaks with Rep. Kevin McCarthy after he fell short of 218 votes to become speaker after the first ballot gestures, on January 3, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Watchdogs are urging House Republicans to revise language in the chamber’s proposed rules package that would undermine an independent congressional ethics body’s ability to function at precisely the moment when it is expected to launch probes of several GOP lawmakers.

The U.S. Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) “provides independent, nonpartisan oversight and accountability, which increases the public’s trust in the U.S. House of Representatives and its members,” the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) wrote Wednesday in a letter. “OCE is Congress’ only independent investigative body, and therefore one of the only safeguards against corruption in the House of Representatives. It is essential to protect and preserve the efficient functioning of OCE.”

While the new House GOP majority has so far failed to elect a speaker, it is poised to dismantle the OCE as soon as it settles on a far-right leader. This would lay “the groundwork for more corruption and less accountability in Congress,” Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), warned Wednesday. “The American people should not stand for it.”

CREW was one of more than 20 organizations that backed CLC’s demand.

Previous House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), an ally of former President Donald Trump whose current bid for the speaker’s gavel has been repeatedly thwarted by MAGA extremists to his right, backs the GOP’s attempt to defang the OCE.

McCarthy’s support for undercutting “the people tasked with investigating congressional wrongdoing… is so, so bad,” CREW tweeted, calling it “the Kevin McCarthy story you need to be talking about.”

McCarthy and fellow Republican Rep.-elects Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), and Scott Perry (Texas) were recently referred to the House Committee on Ethics for defying a subpoena from the select committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Curbing the OCE’s power would shield the four right-wing congressmen from further scrutiny of their apparent support for Trump’s coup attempt just as the board “was considering whether to formally authorize a flurry of investigations” into GOP lawmakers, The Guardian reported Thursday.

In addition, CREW pointed out Thursday, a neutered OCE “would be very good news” for Rep.-elect George Santos (R-N.Y.), a McCarthy supporter who could face an ethics probe after he was caught lying about his education, employment history, and religious background.

If the OCE were to open such investigations, The Guardian noted, “it would ultimately result in public reports with potentially embarrassing conclusions for Republicans.”

CLC explained what would happen if House Republicans’ plan to hamper the OCE is carried out:

The proposed rules package severely curtails the ability of OCE to do the job it exists to do. First, Sec. 4 (d)(6) of the proposed rule forces three of the four Democrats who sit on the eight-member board to vacate their positions immediately because they would be serving beyond the newly imposed eight-year term limit. Filling these vacancies cannot be done quickly and leaving these posts empty would hamstring OCE’s ability to efficiently conduct investigations and publish reports.
Second, Sec. 4(d)(7) would require OCE to hire its staff for the 118th Congress within 30 days of the adoption of the rule. This provision essentially limits any hiring for the office, including investigative staffers, to an impossibly brief period that would make it extremely difficult to rigorously assess candidates for these highstakes jobs. Additionally, the 30-day hiring period applies to the entire 118th Congress, meaning that regardless of when a vacancy at the OCE occurs under this rule, the position cannot be filled.

“Together these changes severely weaken OCE to the point where the office would struggle to perform its core function,” CLC continued. “Past attempts to gut OCE have not only been detrimental to the public’s trust in Congress, but those moves have also been politically damaging and met with widespread public backlash. There is no reason to think this time will be any different.”

As The Guardian noted: “House Republicans previously tried to gut OCE in 2017 by preventing them from taking anonymous complaints and bringing all of its work under the House ethics committee, which is made up of lawmakers who answer to themselves and their respective parties — until national outcry forced them to reverse course.”

CLC on Wednesday implored the 118th Congress “to reverse course and remove Sec. 4(d)(6) and Sec. 4(d)(7) from the House rules proposal so that the Office of Congressional Ethics maintains its full strength.”

CREW, meanwhile, argued that “we shouldn’t just settle for not gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics” and urged Congress to pass Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act.

CREW and CLC were among the 13 organizations that recently asked House leaders to “reauthorize and strengthen OCE in the new year.”