[See UPDATE below]
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?]