Today Members of the House voted to approve a package of new rules for the 115th Congress. Thanks to quick work by good government advocates, like Project On Government Oversight (POGO) supporters, a dangerous amendment that would have gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics was removed. Unfortunately, the Rules missed a number of opportunities to improve transparency and integrity in Congress.
Late Monday night, in a closed door meeting, House Republicans voted 119-74 to include an amendment from Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) in the rules package for the 115th Congress. The amendment would have dramatically changed the Office of Congressional Ethics—effectively dismantling it. The Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent watchdog meant to root out corruption in Congress, created after the Jack Abramoff scandal sent three Members of Congress to jail. The proposed rule restricted the Office’s independence and power by placing it under the control of the House Ethics Committee, essentially allowing Congress to oversee itself and undermining the intended independence of the Office.
This move, done in secret on the first day of a new Congress, sends an ominous message and further weakens voters' confidence that Congress will do the right thing.
Thanks to quick action by POGO supporters and groups like Judicial Watch, Demand Progress, CREW, and Public Citizen, in addition to opposition from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and president-elect Donald Trump, the amendment was stripped from the final rules package approved today. In just an hour and a half, POGO’s army of good government advocates flooded House offices with hundreds of calls opposing the rule change.
But that doesn’t mean the Office of Congressional Ethics is safe. Indeed, Trump’s comments on the matter made it clear that he considers “weakening the Independent Ethics Watchdog” important but that it shouldn’t be at the top of Congress’s to-do list. And this isn’t the first time an overhaul to the Office has been suggested. In 2010, House Democrats proposed similar changes including giving the Ethics Committee authority over the release of investigative findings.
But the fact remains that the Office of Congressional Ethics is the only body that can credibly clear Members of Congress of false allegations of wrongdoing. In fact, the Office has dismissed a majority of the complaints it has received.
While the move to strip the amendment from the rules package was a small victory, several rules intended to increase Congressional transparency were unfortunately left out as well. Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) offered a rule to expand existing requirements for Congressional witnesses with ties to foreign interests. Currently, witnesses who testify before Congress are required to disclose any payments they’ve received from foreign governments related to the subject matter of the hearing. Representative Speier’s amendment would have added disclosure requirements for payments received from foreign nationals, partnerships, associations, corporations, and organizations.
Additionally, a POGO-recommended rule change to better track the influence of outside groups who pay for fellows to work in House offices was also left out. A POGO investigation found several examples of conflicts of interest between the entities sponsoring the fellowships and the legislation the fellows worked on, in addition to rampant disclosure violations. Members of Congress are allowed to staff their offices with fellows who are paid by corporations, foundations, universities, non-profits, and other outside private entities. On the Senate side, the fellow is required to publically disclose which outside group is paying the fellow and how much. The House does not have a similar rule and does not require fellows or their supervisors to disclose the fellowship’s compensation details. Despite POGO’s work illustrating conflicts of interest in this fellowship program, the House chose not to adopt new disclosure requirements.
Though none of these changes were included in the final package approved today, the rules will be updated and changed again in two years. POGO will continue to work toward strengthening and expanding ethics watchdog groups like OCE as well as ensuring that those influencing US policy are as transparent as possible.