January 3rd, 2017

So, was there a vote to gut the ethics office?

[See UPDATE below]

It seems to be the big story of the day—the news that the House GOP has, as the NY Times puts it, voted “with no warning” to “hobble the independent ethics office.”

That certainly sounds bad, very bad. And it’s certainly something that came with no warning. At least, I’ve never heard this discussed before, and I’m a fairly assiduous follower of the political news.

But just try to figure out what it actually means and why it was done. I wish you good luck. Because I’ve grown to deeply distrust sources such as the Times, I’m certainly not going to take their word for it and theirs alone. So I’ve just spent about an hour trying to get up to speed on the story behind the story.

What I’ve gotten so far is this: it wasn’t a vote by the House, it was by Republicans in what is called a blind ballot (according to Kellyanne Conway, at least), and the full House is supposed to vote on it today. The favorite word that is being used to describe the action is that it “guts” the ethics office, but what it actually seems to do is move its function from complete independence to oversight by the House Ethics Committee. The change would also bar investigation through anonymous tips, as well as public disclosures about ongoing investigations. The House Judiciary Chairman who proposed the measure said that it “would ensure due process rights are protected for lawmakers.”

So there you have it. This measure either means that Congress wants to stop itself from being investigated for ethics violations, or it means that it wants to stop abuse/overuse of investigations for political means and to protect the rights of the accused.

This WaPo article is the best one I’ve found so far at explaining the purposes of the proposed change:

The 119-to-74 vote during a GOP conference meeting means that the House rules package expected to be adopted Tuesday, the first day of the 115th Congress, would rename the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and place it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee.

Under the proposed new rules, the office could not employ a spokesman, investigate anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee, which would gain the power to summarily end any OCE probe.

The OCE was created in 2008 to address concerns that the Ethics Committee had been too timid in pursuing allegations of wrongdoing by House members. Under the current House ethics regime, the OCE is empowered to release a public report of its findings even if the Ethics Committee chooses not to take further action against a member.

The move to place the OCE under the Ethics Committee’s aegis stands to please many lawmakers who have been wary of having their dirty laundry aired by the independent entity, but some Republicans feared that rolling back a high-profile ethical reform would send a negative message as the GOP assumes unified control in Washington.

It does indeed “send a negative message”—and it gives the MSM the opportunity to magnify that negative message into something even more negative. It also is another example of the sort of inside-baseball move about which the public was previously completely unaware and for which the GOP did nothing to prepare them. Bad PR, at the very least.

UPDATE 12:46 PM: Just a couple of minutes after I finished this post—literally, just a couple of minutes—I read this:

House Republicans scrapped plans to weaken an independent ethics watchdog on Tuesday after a backlash from President-elect Donald Trump, as a new period of Republican-led governance started taking shape on a tumultuous note.

The House GOP moved to withdraw changes made the day before to official rules that would rein in the Office of congressional Ethics. Instead, the House will study changes to the office with an August deadline.

Trump took to Twitter to slam House Republicans for voting behind closed doors Monday night to weaken the independent ethics office. The vote defied House GOP leaders and complicated Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign mantra.

“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it . . . may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, health care and so many other things of far greater importance!” Trump wrote on Twitter Tuesday morning, hours before the start of the 115th Congress.

Fascinating. A couple of things to note. The first is that the House GOP leadership (Ryan) was against the vote. The second is that Trump adds “as unfair as it is”—underlining the fact that the current setup does lend itself to abuse and might need changing. His criticism is reserved for the precipitous way it was done, and the timing of it.

That pretty much agrees with my assessment.

[ADDENDUM: More explanation here.

It does appear that the main problem was indeed the timing and precipitous nature of the changes, which could probably be debated at leisure and passed in a bipartisan manner. Nor do the proposed revisions “gut” the ethics office.

But when will the Republicans learn that the MSM is not their friend, and they must get out ahead of stories and communicate effectively with the public about what they’re doing and why?]

23 Responses to “So, was there a vote to gut the ethics office?”

  1. n.n Says:

    This brings to mind the “independent” ethics office in Texas; or, for that matter, the “independent” Press; or, the Separation of Church (e.g. Pro-Choice) and State; etc. No such thing. The best we can hope for is that people free of religious/moral principles will be prevented from running amuck by competing interests.

  2. JK Brown Says:

    If Republican politicians weren’t so stupid, the Democrats would have a much harder time screwing up the country.

    We need third option.

  3. Irv Says:

    I wonder where the praise is for Trump for stopping this?

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Irv:

    Don’t sit on a hot stove waiting for the MSM to praise him. For this, or anything.

  5. Vanderleun Says:

    Here’s mine.

    Humm, maybe this Trump guy might actually be good for the nation.

  6. Janetoo Says:

    Go Trump, go. I think his instincts are very good. Street smarts. And he keeps winning.

  7. Kyndyll G Says:

    I have to admit, as someone who spent a lot of time bashing Trump, there are times when he seems to waste no time making the right thing happen. When I saw this story this morning, my first thought was, “Are you &#%#% kidding me? How stupid are you people?” Whether or not something needs to be done to tweak the functionality of this entity is one thing; but the optics of the incident were astonishingly terrible. You wonder how people who managed to conduct a successful campaign for public office are so incapable of seeing utterly tone-deaf bad ideas for what they are.

    From the perspective of an outsider looking in, a couple of tweets from Trump and the foot does not get shot today.

  8. T Says:

    I just wonder how many of the Republicans who wanted to do this were #Nevertrump Republicans.

    I think Trump was spot on . . . with all the important stuff you have to do . . . .

    And people still can’t understand why so many voted against retaining the status quo.

  9. Jim Doherty Says:

    Wait wut ?!?!

    Trump folds like a cheap tent right off the bat and you trumpkins applaud?

    That panel was created in 2008 by democrats, ya know, back when your pal san fran nan ran things? It was intended as a weapon against republicans. And it missed things, until informed and forced to look, about people like Rangel and Waters. Damn sure got the republicans though.

    This is what Trump does right off? The MSM uses their passive aggressive mangina tactics to protect their use of government as a weapon, and he folds. No fight, no explanation as to why the people pushing to do this were the republicans not in leadership and therefore protected?

    And one of my favorite haunts for real conservatives comes out applauding this crap? Welp I guess we should wait until they haul a republican governor off to jail, only to have to release him later, before we say anything. Oh wait.

    Nevermind. Same ol stupid party I see.

  10. n.n Says:

    Trump team seeks agency records on border barriers, surveillance

    Work, first. Politics, second. His team seems to take their jobs seriously.

  11. n.n Says:

    Jim Doherty:

    There is a presumption of prejudice, so the people don’t care about the “ethics committee”. It will be up to the executive staff to resolve the “independent” committee’s claims and the grass roots (i.e. Americans) to fact check the “independent” Press reports.

  12. Jim Doherty Says:

    nn.

    So what you and others will come on and say is basically, we are republicans, and we play defense!!

    Flip this around to the Democrats. Would the media have pushed this the way they did? would obama have said a damn thing?

    Keep playing defense, and you can kiss goodbye to all that hope for real change. They are just getting started with their pearl clutching. Wait until you are dragging kids out of their hospital beds and tossing them into the street, thanks to your obamacare repeal.

  13. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    If it would have blocked investigating anonymous tips ( a whistleblower’s fear of retaliation) and given the corrupt ‘ethics’ committee the power to end any investigation, then the proposed ‘reform’ would weaken standards rather than strengthen them.

    If so, then Trump is right to oppose it.

  14. Kyndyll G Says:

    Jim … Anything created by Democrats is probably inherently corrupt or doublespeak. It probably is a tool for protecting Democrat unethical behavior and randomly punishing political enemies.

    However, what’s important here is perception by a public which has a record-low opinion of Congress members and has voted to “drain the swamp.” In context of that, dismantling of an ethics committee as a mission-number-one priority looks bad. Particularly in this case, as it seems to have come out of left field, with no back story or explanation. A reasonable person who doesn’t live and breathe Washington politics and distrusts our elected officials sees this and doesn’t think, “Great, they’re getting rid of that corrupt snakepit created a few years ago by Democrats,” they automatically assume that unethical congress people want the ethics committee (which as far as they know has been in existence forever) out of their way. And oh, look, it’s REPUBLICANS who have so much to hide that it’s the first thing they do.

    If this ethics committee is a problem, it can be addressed later in the session – after dealing with mission-critical matters and preferably after airing the shortcomings of the current situation so that it doesn’t appear like unethical rats trying to protect themselves first and foremost.

  15. Montage Says:

    Jim Doherty

    The OCE was created in 2008 to address concerns that the Ethics Committee had been too timid in pursuing allegations of wrongdoing by House members.

    This isn’t about only Democrats or only Republicans. This is about any House member and ethics violations. The changes would have weakened this office by eliminating a spokesperson as well as eliminated investigating anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee. How can anyone be opposed to a committee like this? The GOP can use it just as much as the Democrats. It’s truly bipartisan. It does not matter who started the committee.

    Also, to you who applaud Trump for his tweet, I have to say you guys are pretty easily placated. Being against the House for dropping part of an ethics committee is a no brainer. Trump only gets applause for seemingly being critical of the GOP. But he added that it was often ‘unfair’. Which is not true. This committee can be used by anyone. It might certainly depend on how it is used but the GOP runs the House now.

  16. Jim Doherty Says:

    Baloney Montage, you are telling me that they can replace the people who are on it? If thats true why did the rank and file repubs have the votes to force the change?

    You are not making sense. You want me to belive that all the repubs who voted for this were crooks who are looking for a way to cheat? Get real.

    They voted for this, because this is their only way to address a wrong, that the leadership is unconcerned about. If this thing created by Democrats was actually bipartisan as you say, why are the lower ranked repubs going after it in obviously majority numbers?

    You can rap them for timing, but where there is smoke there is usually fire. And these people are politicians, they know something about timing and perception. They didnt risk this to get some free travel, they are probably seeing themselves getting asked a lot of questions while corrupt democrats get a pass.

  17. Montage Says:

    Jim Doherty
    The OCE is an independent, non-partisan office. I’m not exactly sure how they form their board of eight directors but they had one board in 2008 and another in 2010. No one in Congress can be on the board. The fact is both parties have complained about the OCE because they all think they can be self policed. They can’t. An ethics committee is always a good idea. Why are you opposed to a non partisan ethics committee? Don’t you want oversight just a little bit? Also, stop with the partisanship and ‘corrupt Democrats’. That is laughable. BOTH parties have plenty of corruption. It’s endemic to Washington. That’s why an independent committee of this sort is needed.

  18. Kyndyll G Says:

    “If this thing created by Democrats was actually bipartisan as you say, why are the lower ranked repubs going after it in obviously majority numbers?”

    I don’t know, Jim, why are they? Particularly when they were elected to do entirely different, and vastly more important things?

    Remember that great kerfuffle last fall about the abuses of the ethics committee and how it was absolutely, totally critical that before anything else, before dealing with Obamacare or brushing teeth or anything else, we had to dismantle the so-called “ethics committee?”

    Oh, right. Neither do I.

    That’s why it seems weird and why it looks bad. It looks like yet another attempt by GOP congress people to waste the mandate given them by the electorate on doing something no one asked them to do. Given the optics and the timing, it’s even more idiotic than the usual gambit of getting a GOP majority to deal with Democrat-driven unemployment and moribund economy, and then bursting out of the gate with something having to do with abortion – at least some percent of GOP voters wanted some action on abortion.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    Jim Doherty:

    Trump was talking mostly about the timing and the fact that this was done without much deliberation. It’s a matter of priorities and allowing for reasoned study of the problem and the possible solutions, and I happen to agree with him on that.

    I have no idea as yet whether I’d be ultimately for the move or against it, because it hasn’t been debated as far as I know and I don’t have much information about it. But I am almost certain it’s the wrong time to take it up and the wrong way to take it up. And that’s basically what Trump said,as far as I can tell.

  20. neo-neocon Says:

    Montage:

    “Fairness” can be judged in many different ways. Fairness does not rest merely on whether something is bipartisan in its execution and/or in its targets. Something can be fair in that way, but it can nevertheless be unfair in other ways.

    The revision to the way the ethics committee was originally set up, and the need for change, is based on the idea that it fails to, as the post says, “ensure due process rights are protected for lawmakers.” That’s what is alleged to be “unfair” (there’s more about that at that WaPo link).

  21. JuliB Says:

    A (real life) Dem friend on FB posted her surprise and appreciation that Trump came out against it. Of course, she doesn’t know the basic facts that Neo posted, or that Trump added a qualifier, but it was a good tweet for the LIV Dems (who think they know a lot).

  22. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Yup, ABC painted it tonight as the evil republicans trying to escape accountability.

  23. Todd Says:

    Keep it up! The more radical ideas from this house the better. They won’t last the next election. True values come to the surface and show that their greed is heavier than integrity. We deserve all that these guys try to get away with because we are a nation of illiterate, knee jerk brainwashed voters. Good luck America. You will never drain the swamp until you drain the stupid selfish voter.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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