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Without Warning or Public Input, House Republicans Vote to Dismantle Ethics Oversight Office

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A new Republican-led Congress meets today, and in one of their first moves, House Republicans have voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, dismantling reforms adopted after a previous Republican ethics scandal. The measure will take away authority and independence from the investigative body and give more power to lawmakers over internal inquiries. We speak with Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist on campaign finance and governmental ethics, who helped to set up the Office of Congressional Ethics after it was established in 2008, and says it “literally quadrupled” the number of ethics actions taken in the House but will now be “neutered.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A new Republican-led Congress meets today. In one of the first moves, House Republicans have voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, dismantling reforms adopted after a previous Republican ethics scandal. The vote reportedly came as a surprise and without the support of House Speaker Paul Ryan or Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The full House is scheduled to vote later today.

Under the measure, the Office of Congressional Ethics will be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and placed under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee. The move takes away authority and independence from the investigative body and gives more power to lawmakers over internal inquiries. According to The Washington Post, under new rules, the office will not be able to employ a spokesperson, investigate anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee, which would also gain the power to end any of the office’s investigations. The measure’s sponsor, Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, said in a statement the move, quote, “builds upon and strengthens the current arrangement and improves the due process rights for the House members under investigation.”

Well, for more, we’re going to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist on campaign finance and governmental ethics. Holman helped set up the Office of Congressional Ethics after it was established in 2001 [sic].

We welcome you, Craig, to Democracy Now!

CRAIG HOLMAN: Thank you. Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: That was—that was established in 2008. So, this happened yesterday, on the eve of the opening of Congress today, in the House Republican Conference, behind closed doors. Explain what you understood took place.

CRAIG HOLMAN: First of all, this was a midnight rules change that caught everybody by surprise last night. No doubt, the Republicans in Congress understand that the public would view this with a great deal of hostility, and so they snuck it through last night. So, we had been assured by the Republican caucus over the last two weeks that the Office of Congressional Ethics was going to be kept intact and reauthorized in the new year, in the new session. And then, suddenly, last night, we’re receiving tweets that the Republicans in Congress changed their mind. They suddenly accepted this amendment to neuter the Office of Congressional Ethics and place it under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which means, by the way, placing it under control of members of Congress themselves. This caught us entirely by surprise.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain. Now, they’re saying it actually expands the power of the ethics office. But can you explain why even Paul Ryan and Congressman McCarthy, the majority leader and the House speaker, have opposed this?

CRAIG HOLMAN: Well, you know, I’ve got to find out more about Paul Ryan’s stance. But the fact that the Republican caucus approved this last night as part of the rules package, I’ve got to hold Paul Ryan responsible, as well. I understand that Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership would perceive this as being negative publicity for them. And it indeed shall be. But, you know, in the end, the Republicans—the Republican caucus did approve this. They’re accepting it as part of the new rules change. And within just a couple hours, they’re going to make it law of the House of Representatives. Paul Ryan’s got to be held accountable for this, along with the entire Republican Conference.

Let me emphasize how big a change this is. The House Ethics Committee is a committee that is controlled by members of Congress that oversees themselves. They historically have done literally nothing but sweep ethics complaints under the rug and hide them from public view. Following the Jack Abramoff scandals, we created the Office of Congressional Ethics, that is run by outsiders, not members of Congress, and made sure that their reports and analysis would become public so you and I could actually monitor what’s going on in terms of ethics when it comes to the House of Representatives. Literally, once we created OCE in 2008, the number of actions taken by the House Ethics Committee in the House ethics process literally quadrupled in that short period of time over the entire history of the House Ethics Committee. That’s how important OCE is to the ethics process. And the only—the only people who have despised OCE are the members of Congress themselves. And just last night, they have neutered this agency.

AMY GOODMAN: For people who don’t remember, for example, the original scandal that led to this office in 2008, if you can lay out what happened with Jack Abramoff?

CRAIG HOLMAN: Well, Jack Abramoff was considered the uber-lobbyist of the time. But, quite frankly, you know, he was typical of K Street lobbyists. They literally had very close relations with congressional leaders, and they worked in tandem with congressional leaders. So Jack Abramoff would fly members of Congress, congressional leaders, to Scotland to play golf. He had a restaurant right across the street from here called Signatures Restaurant, where he had a table set aside for free wining and dining of any members of Congress who wanted to partake. Literally, he was using money, he was using gifts, he was using travel, to buy control over the House of Representatives.

And it worked. The House Ethics Committee never stepped in to deal with Jack Abramoff. It was the Department of Justice that finally had to step in and charge Jack with bribery, before we could finally get this under control, which is why we knew it was so important to create a new independent agency that would be outside the control of members of Congress to monitor the ethics process of the House of Representatives.

AMY GOODMAN: So now the Office of Congressional Ethics would have to answer to the House Ethics Committee, would not be independent, which means would be in control of the Republican and Democratic legislators.

CRAIG HOLMAN: It defeats the entire purpose and operations of OCE. First of all, it puts members of Congress once again smack dab in control of the ethics monitoring process. And secondly, it takes away the public disclosures of any type of investigation or complaint that OCE might be—might be dealing with. So, we go back to the old Jack Abramoff era of members of Congress overseeing themselves and not letting us know what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: How did this come as such a surprise to so many? And, of course, the significance of the first act of this Congress, as the Republican president is about to be inaugurated, going to the issue of corruption and ethics has astounded many across the political spectrum today. Isn’t it possible that, under enormous pressure, as people wake up to what has taken place, that the Republicans might not vote this forward in the full House?

CRAIG HOLMAN: It’s highly likely the Republicans are going to ratify this. Since they ratified it last night as a midnight rules change, it’s going to be the very first order of business at 10:00 a.m. this morning. And the House cannot operate until it—until it ratifies its new House rules. This is the rules package. It was brought on so late so—to make it very difficult for the public to try to intervene and prevent this action from happening. So, it’s almost a done deal at this point. At 10:00 a.m., it will be a done deal.

And by the way, it caught us so much by surprise, because, you know, the entire reform community—and by “reform community,” I’m including conservative groups, like Judicial Watch, National Taxpayers Association; progressive groups, like Public Citizen, Common Cause; nonpartisan groups, like League of Women Voters. We have all, every session, got together to try to make sure that OCE would be reauthorized with each session. When we had Speaker Boehner and Nancy Pelosi as the leadership, we were assured it was going to happen. We were a little concerned this time, because we had a new figure in there—Paul Ryan—and we did not know where Paul Ryan was going to come out on this. So, about two weeks ago, all our groups submitted a letter to Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi pointing out how valuable OCE is and asking that it be reauthorized. And we were reassured that it would be reauthorized. So, we weren’t concerned, until suddenly—suddenly, last night, when the House Republicans backpedaled on this, rewrote the rules and are now about to neuter the OCE.

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