On Monday, Dec. 2, Republicans in the House of Representatives secretly voted to markedly restrict the power of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent watchdog which was set up in 2008 after a string of scandals which sent three House members to jail.
The vote was made in opposition to Republican House leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, who argued against making a maverick ethics change and hoped to push the issue to a later date when a more bipartisan approach would be possible. The move, which would essentially kill the office, was not made public until Monday night. As part of a larger rules package that the House planned to vote on during the next day, the secretive vote and subsequent announcement seemed to leave little room for discussion on the matter.
But that was not the case. Across the country, offices of Republican representatives who had voted on the measure were flooded with calls from angry constituents, and prominent figures from both parties heavily criticized the move. The OCE has often kept the public aware of alleged wrongdoing by representatives; under the new rule, however, the office would not be allowed to release such information to the media. In fact, it would not even be allowed to directly contact law enforcement if its employees learned of potential criminal activity on the part of representatives.
As a result of the backlash these House members received—most notably, from President-elect Donald Trump late Tuesday morning—they ultimately scrapped the measure. Trump was credited with much of the responsibility for the reversal, though it’s very likely that the hundreds of thousands of calls placed by constituents and other distinguished officials also played a role. The move was criticized as a display of weakness by Republican officials, who, on their first day back in session and with complete control of Congress, seemed to be in a state of disagreement and disarray.However, since then, those same House officials, with the help of the Senate, have been able to quietly pass a new rule which again threatens the power and scope of ethics investigations in Congress. The passage of this rule allows individual representatives to hide “embarrassing” or “incriminating” financial documents from investigators—from ethics committees or even from the U.S. Department of Justice. This vote is unlikely to get the same level of attention as the first one, but poses an arguably even more serious threat to ethical standards and independent oversight. Allowing Congress members to pick and choose what they allow independent investigators to access is dangerous. Under the new rule, regardless of if a document concerns a breach of public welfare (like the commission of a crime or illegal use of taxpayer funds), an elected official can choose not to hand it over to investigators. The House’s recent focus on undercutting congressional criminal and ethics investigations and minimizing the transparency of elected officials is confounding and alarming—and it raises some very obvious questions: why do our U.S. representatives want to be shielded from independent investigations? From where do they derive that privilege? And what are they hoping to hide?