In a bold move on the second day of the new year, House Republicans voted in a closed-door meeting to reduce the power of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, a watchdog group established to assist the House Ethics Committee in researching potentially unethical wrongdoing. They have essentially gutted their own oversight organization, and the GOP vote on the Office of Congressional Ethics sends a myopic message about ethics and transparency ahead of the inauguration of President-Elect Donald Trump.
The OCE was established by the House of Representatives in 2008 as an independent office intended to balance the House Ethics Committee, which is overseen by the House itself. But on Monday, led by Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, GOP members voted 119-74 in favor of the new amendment, which will place the OCE under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Committee. It will also do away with the OCE's public report, a cornerstone of their work that offers nonpartisan transparency in allegations against House members even if the Ethics Committee doesn't pursue punishment against them.
Despite the President-elect's commitment to "draining the swamp," this amendment, if passed, is likely to be the first of many efforts to both reduce government transparency and pursue so-called "ethics reform," which may include attacks on the very organizations meant to keep our elected officials in line.
In its current language, the amendment to the House rules package will "provide protection against disclosures to the public or other government entities," and in doing so will eliminate the public disclosure portion of the OCE's first iteration.
Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, tweeted following the meeting that "the amendment ... improves upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify," and reiterated that it won't impede the "important work" of the OCE. He failed to mention that his bill will also rename the OCE as the "Office of Congressional Complaint Review," a symbolic renaming if there ever was one.
Amid the ever-growing laundry list of concerns about the incoming administration and the strongly Republican Congress that will support it, this measure offers a startling view of what could become of transparency and ethics under a Trump administration. With a President-elect who's had his own major disagreements with both the press and the intelligence community, this amendment might add ethical reform and watchdog groups to the list of institutions within the crosshairs of the almost-inaugurated Trump. In the future, keeping a watchful eye on such proposals will be key to holding his administration accountable.