In the space of 24 hours, the Republican members of the House of Representatives have both voted for and backed off from a resolution that would strip the powers from the Office of Congressional Ethics (O.C.E.).
In a closed doors meeting, Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, pushed forth the rule change which would essentially remove the independence of the O.C.E. and bring them under the control of… congress.
Needless to say, many people were less than thrilled at the idea of the foxes watching the hen house. In fact, the move was so unpopular that calls flooded into offices across the country. Even House GOP leadership spoke of the event as if it caught them off guard. It’s hard to believe that a majority of the majority party decided to do something like this without party leadership catching wind of it, but that’s unverifiable and neither here nor there. Lindsey Graham took some shots, calling the move the, “dumbest frickin’ thing,” then retweeting not one or two, but three news articles that ran the headline.
The vote for the rule change was held in a closed doors meeting of House GOP members, meaning that the public had no access to a record of the votes cast to support it, but we’re told the measure passed 119-74.
The Sunshine Foundation created a crowd sourced spreadsheet that compiled the answers people got when they called congressmen to find out who voted for the rule change. In another completely unsurprising turn, there are far fewer than 119 representatives willing to step out and say they voted yes.
The criticism of the O.C.E. that has come from investigated members of congress on both sides of the aisle is that the complaints lodged against them are anonymous, and that it infringes on their rights to due process if they can’t confront their accuser. They also point to the fact that the O.C.E. has no authority to punish, and their work largely overlaps with the House Committee on Ethics. They also say that the move would not have dissolved the O.C.E. it merely would have removed their ability to accept anonymous complaints and made them answer directly to the House Committee on Ethics, which is comprised of members of congress who are beholden to their parties and political expedience. And we’ve all seen the way that congress can manage to keep ethics hearings to their appropriate measure and not politicize them at all, unless of course the time Kevin McCarthy had a little slip of the tongue wasn’t the truth accidentally slipping out.
First, a member of congress or any other high ranking government official should be ready to make some sacrifices during the course of their service. Given the way congress took away a major chunk of the public’s civil rights when they signed the PATRIOT Act and every other rebranded successor bill, it seems like no small stretch that we should be able to ask them to give up a small piece of their civil rights in the interest of national security and ethics in government. Private citizens have a right to expect reasonable privacy and the full protection of due process. Those of us who would aspire to lead, however, owe it to us to be beyond reproach, and part of getting there is increased transparency and vulnerability to having the shield of their power broken.
Second, the O.C.E. may not hand out sentences or criminal charges, but at the very least, they serve the public as opposed to a party and they offer public results to their investigations. Their work may overlap with a congressional committee, but it operates at a different level and in a different way. With the proposed rules, the O.C.E. would have been remade into a different entity, and many interpret the rule to mean that congress could actually stop ethics investigations before they were completed.
Lastly, having an independent group that can observe and investigate the powerful is a good thing. To operate efficiently, that group cannot be comprised of people with election campaigns and party politics in mind when they undertake the investigation. In fact, watchdog groups like this ought to be more plentiful and present all over the government. Maybe it would have prevented Clarence Thomas and Anthony Scalia from behaving so unethically during the Citizens United case.
It doesn’t take a master political strategist to guess that this rule change may well come up again as soon as the public isn’t looking. In the age of the internet, this will be long forgotten in two news cycles. Don’t believe me? Ask a few people if they remember anything about Mossack Fonseca.
The country rose up to swat down this power grab. We’ve proven that if we mobilize enough of a voice, they will hear it. It’s up to us to remain vigilant and continue to move any time the 115th congress reaches in this way again.