House Republicans reversed course Tuesday on a controversial rules change that would have replaced the independent Office of Congressional Ethics with a new office under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee.
The rules change had been passed in a closed-door meeting of the House Republican Conference Monday. According to press reports, the vote was 119-74 for the amendment by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia. It was to be considered by the full House Tuesday, but after it sparked a nationwide backlash, members of the conference voted to remove the amendment Tuesday by unanimous consent.
Among Arkansas’ congressional delegation, Rep. Bruce Westerman voted for the original rules change Monday while Reps. French Hill and Steve Womack voted against it. Rep. Rick Crawford was traveling and did not participate in the conference meeting, but he opposed the change, he and his office said.
Governed by a six-member board, the Office of Congressional Ethics has a staff of investigators who consider possible violations of federal laws or rules. According to the New York Times, it issues findings to the House Ethics Committee if it determines violations may have occurred. The Ethics Committee then conducts its own review but must release the Office’s report even if it decides no wrongdoing has occurred.
The rules change would have replaced it with an Office of Congressional Complaint Review that would have been overseen by the House Ethics Committee. The new office would have been barred from considering anonymous complaints and would have been prohibited from releasing any public information unless the information had been released or authorized by the House Ethics Commission.
The move came after several Republican members of Congress complained of being forced to spend significant private funds to defend themselves against unsubstantiated charges. According to press reports, the amendment was opposed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
The proposed change sparked a backlash from constituents and even President-elect Donald Trump, who wrote in two tweets, “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, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS”
“DTS” is an acronym for “drain the swamp.”
Crawford said in an interview Tuesday that the sentiment for reform is understandable and is based on “the constitutionality of being able to face your accuser, being afforded due process.” He said members had been wrongfully accused and been forced to pay significant sums of their own personal money to defend themselves. He said Democrats have also faced unfounded charges and that many charges come as a result of anonymous accusations.
However, the process for changing the rules should have been more transparent and deliberate, he said, and he voted no.
“I’m definitely for reform. I don’t care for the method that they used to make it part of this package,” he said. “I think this is such a serious issue that it does demand a deliberate effort, and it should be given a lot more attention than to create controversy at the very beginning of our Congress when this is something that on its own should be dealt with in the light of day.”
Crawford said his office had received phone calls and emails as part of the backlash and that “it was viewed by the American people as just another backroom deal.”
“When you’re having to defend something, usually it’s not good. That’s just sort of life. When you’re on defense, typically that’s not the posture you want to assume,” he said.
He said the issue should be largely resolved before the August break.
Womack, who also voted against the original rules change, said in an interview Tuesday before the course reversal that Republicans should not have addressed the issue so soon after gaining power.
“The Democrats obviously have already come out and trashed the vote, and Mr. Trump as well, and I think they’re spot on,” he said. “I think there are flaws in the system, but I don’t think the way we dealt with it last night was demonstrative of … the message we’re sending to the American people about what our priorities are. It should be less about us and more about the challenges facing this country.”
However, he did say that changes should be made.
“I think there was a better way to perfect the system where you, one, have the proper oversight for members, but at the same time you limit the ridiculous hardship that happens from time to time on glorified witch hunts that yield nothing except that they put a lot of money in the pockets of a bunch of attorneys over charges that don’t amount to anything,” he said.
Rep. Hill released a statement Tuesday saying, “Last night, I voted against Chairman Goodlatte’s proposed amendment to H. Res 5. While I do believe the Office of Congressional Ethics is flawed and poorly designed and needs to be reformed to protect members’ constitutional rights, I also believe those reforms need to play out in a more open and bipartisan manner. Members of Congress must be held to strict, high ethical standards, but members also deserve the same essential due process protections that all Americans enjoy. I am pleased my colleagues changed course this afternoon and scrapped the amendment so we can begin this Congress free of any unnecessary noise that diverts us away from accomplishing the things the American people have tasked us with doing, like fixing healthcare, reforming the tax code, securing the border, growing the economy, and strengthening national security.”
Ryan Saylor, spokesperson for Westerman, who voted for Goodlatte’s rules change, said in an emailed statement today, “The amendment in question was removed from the House rules package today and the congressman looks forward to tackling the issues that concern the residents of the Fourth District of Arkansas as the 115th Congress moves forward. Congressman Westerman believes in a repeal (of) Obamacare, simplifying the tax code, and restoring the constitutional authority granted to the legislative branch, and that is what he will focus on in his second term in Congress.”
H.L. Moody, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said, “I think it was a really foolish move, and I’m glad it sounds like they’ve reconsidered. There are ethics issues at every level of government starting with the Trump administration and his possible conflicts of interest, and now is not the time to be doing away with ethics standards. Now is the time to be strengthening them.”