House Republicans Vote To Cripple Ethics Watchdog

Hiring for the Office of Congressional Ethics is about to get a lot harder.

House Republicans voted nearly unanimously to cripple the Office of Congressional Ethics, a bipartisan watchdog whose work has led to resignations and criminal charges for members of both political parties.

The provisions hamstringing the office were included in the rules package for the new Congress that the House approved on Monday, three days after Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) finished his weeklong battle to become speaker of the House.

The vote was 220-213, almost entirely along party lines. Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas was the only Republican to oppose the package, although his stated reasons had nothing to do with the ethics office.

The new rules will institute term limits for members of the office’s board, which will immediately make three of the body’s four Democratic members ineligible to serve. It also mandates that the office is only allowed to hire staff in the next 30 days ― a difficult task given both the empty seats on the board and the federal government’s typically laborious hiring processes.

The effect, advocates have warned, will be to cripple perhaps the only effective congressional ethics watchdog. The office could soon investigate the role lawmakers played in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and could also look into the finances and fundraising of incoming Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.).

Good government advocates and liberals spent the past week trying to strip the provisions from the package, with little signs of progress or success. Twenty-four groups, led by the Campaign Legal Center, sent a letter to members last week asking them to keep the office intact.

“Together these changes weaken OCE to the point where the office would struggle to perform its core function, dismantling one of the only ways members of Congress are held accountable for ethics violations,” the groups wrote. “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.”

End Citizens United, a Democratic campaign finance reform group, asked OCE to investigate whether McCarthy used government resources to direct the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC controlled by his allies, to cut a deal with the Club for Growth, a hard-line conservative group.

The deal, in which CLF agreed to stop backing candidates in open primaries in safe GOP districts, led Club for Growth to drop its opposition to McCarthy’s ascension to the speakership.

Over its 16-year existence, the office has investigated everything from trips paid for by corporations (Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York) to insider trading by members of Congress (GOP Rep. Chris Collins of New York), leading to censures on the House floor, resignations and criminal investigations.

Democrats, led by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, created the office in 2007 after campaigning against a slew of scandals involving House Republicans. The office works with the House Ethics Committee but is considered more independent and aggressive.

Republicans have tried to kill the office before. In 2017, after former President Donald Trump’s victory, they voted to do so in the rules package only to backtrack after Trump expressed opposition to it.

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