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Who will watch the House watchdogs?

- January 3, 2017
President-elect Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) pose for photographers after a meeting Nov. 10 on Capitol Hill. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Republicans on Tuesday will launch the 115th Congress, after waiting a decade for unified Republican control of Congress and the White House. But instead of focusing on paving the way for President-elect Donald Trump’s sweeping agenda, all eyes this morning are focused on the House GOP move to gut its chamber’s ethics watchdog.

The House votes Tuesday afternoon on its rules for the 115th Congress — rules that will include a provision to shred the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics. It’s a bold move for a party whose presidential candidate campaigned on “draining the swamp” of Washington corruption and a startling move for a Congress approved by less than 20 percent of the public.

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Why does the OCE exist and why has it become a target for its House Republican opponents?

What’s so special about the OCE?

In 2007, after the Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption scandal, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and minority leader John A. Boehner assembled a bipartisan task force to consider how to rejuvenate the oversight of House ethics. The House adopted the task force’s proposals (with most Republicans voting against the resolution) as part of its new rules.

The new OCE set up a quasi-independent office of nonmembers to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by House members — thereby limiting the conflict of interest that invariably arose when lawmakers were called upon to judge their own colleagues. Before creation of the OCE, the House ethics panel — which had an even partisan balance — often stalemated on investigations.

The new rules gave the OCE authority to investigate complaints — only with bipartisan consent — and to either dismiss or refer cases to the House ethics committee for further investigation. In addition, the House ordered the OCE to make its actions public and limited the time spent on its investigations.

In the figure below, data from OCE’s quarterly reports provide an overview of the office’s efforts since creation. Two trends are notable.

First, after a burst of activity in 2009, OCE inquiries subsided markedly. Contrary to claims Tuesday morning by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, there is little evidence of “overzealousness” of investigations under the current regime.

Second, the OCE recommended a relatively small proportion of cases for additional review by the House ethics panel. The limited data suggest that the OCE served largely as intended: a screening mechanism to sift through allegations that lawmakers might characteristically sweep under the rug if asked to make those initial determinations about their colleagues by themselves.

oce actions

Why is the OCE under attack?

By a 119-74 vote during a closed-door meeting of the House Republican conference Monday night, the House GOP proposed a new set of chamber rules that would gut the heart of the OCE. The OCE would be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and placed under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee. Public release of the office’s findings would be barred. With the change, lawmakers would again have power over investigating their colleagues’ potential ethics violations.

Perhaps more remarkable than the GOP move to eviscerate the OCE is that the office lasted as long as it did. The OCE has always been vulnerable, because its authority was written into House rules, rather than statute. Because House rules expire at the end of each Congress, lawmakers must readopt the rules every two years with the OCE language included, lest the OCE be disbanded by a sleight of hand.

To be sure, writing the OCE into statute would have enhanced the office’s stature and entrenched its key features. But such a move would also have required large bipartisan majorities — a possibility out of bounds in today’s highly partisan House.

Some lawmakers have in the past tried — unsuccessfully — to unwind the OCE by dropping it from House rules. This time, lawmakers — led by legislators targeted by the OCE — have finally gutted the office.

So why did the Republicans move now to kill the OCE now? First, while reports say that Speaker Paul D. Ryan opposed the move, his grip on power seems too weak to convince a majority of his conference to back down. Second, with Trump refusing to acknowledge the depth of his and his family’s conflicts of interest, opponents of the OCE likely calculated that the new culture of compromised ethics would protect them from attack.

Left in House rules with little insulation from critics, the OCE since inception has been a fragile institution — susceptible to an aggressive majority bent on undermining OCE’s independence. If Republicans succeed in altering the OCE, it will make the House again resemble the Senate — a body that seems unwilling to allow anyone to watch its watchdogs.