It's a new year, and for Republicans in the House of Representatives, that means new rules, too. One day ahead of the start of a new session of Congress Tuesday, GOP representatives voted 119-74 to "effectively kill" the Office of Congressional Ethics, according to The New York Times. What does the Office of Congressional Ethics do? The independent, bipartisan body has been in place for a decade, and was created after a number of representatives were convicted of bribery, and were ultimately sent to jail. Since then, the Office of Congressional Ethics has been in charge of investigating complaints regarding possible violations of federal law amongst members, and then voting on whether to move the investigation on to the House Ethics Committee for a full review.
Under the new rules, the Office of Congressional Ethics would be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and would no longer be allowed to investigate allegations of illegal activity by members of Congress, according to CNN. Instead, the office would instead be required to pass along the complaint to the House Ethics Committee, which is actually comprised of the same lawmakers the ethics office was meant to oversee. The House Ethics Committee would now also have the ability "to stop an investigation at any point," if deemed appropriate, and the ethics office would no longer be allowed to make any public statements about any claims passed on to them.
The controversial move was spearheaded by Republican Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who argued in a statement that the proposal actually "builds upon and strengthens" the ethics office "by maintaining its primary area of focus," according to NPR. Goodlatte also said that the change would "[improve] upon due process rights for individuals under investigation," reflecting some representatives' opinions that the ethics office was too aggressive in their investigations.
According to CNN, GOP Rep. Hal Rogers told reporters he felt the change was "the right thing to do," and argued that there were members "who were falsely accused by this group who had to spend a fortune to get their good name restored." Texas Congressman Bill Flores agreed, and argued that the ethics office is "out of control," and prevents members from getting "constitutional rights [and] constitutional protections" when they are accused of a violation.
But not all Republicans were on board with the decision. According to The New York Times, both Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader California Rep. Kevin McCarthy spoke out against the proposal, with Ryan reportedly telling members that "there's a bipartisan way to better reform the office," according to NPR.
Unsurprisingly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was much more critical. In a statement following the vote, Pelosi wrote,
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. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.
Pelosi also argued that the ethics office "is essential to an effective ethics process in the House," and that, by voting for the amendment, "the House Republicans Conference has acted to weaken ethics and silence would-be whistleblowers."
Pelosi wasn't the only one angered by the decision. According to The Huffington Post, Daniel Schuman, the policy director of the activist organization Demand Progress, criticized the GOP not only for voting to dismantle the ethics office, but for doing it so quietly. Schuman said,
With today’s action — taken behind closed doors and with no opportunity for public debate — the House now rolls back the clock to an era of corruption and decay. We will all be the worse for it.
Advocacy group Every Voice's Adam Smith agreed, arguing that the vote was "a shameful move by House Republicans that’ll weaken ethics oversight and make members less accountable for their actions."
The full House of Representatives are scheduled to vote on the proposal, along with a number of other changes, when it convenes on Tuesday.