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Analysis

House of Representatives Adopts Whistleblower and Ethics Reforms for Itself

The House of Representatives has new rules for itself that will foster stronger accountability and ethics, and protect whistleblowers. 

At the beginning of each legislative session, Congress adopts rules that cover everything from voting procedures to the names of committees to who is admitted into the halls of Congress to dress codes for Members. While appearing mundane, the process of how Congress legislates and conducts oversight can either foster or thwart those trying to have their voices heard. Congressional ethics and conflict-of-interest standards are also defined by these rules.

For the 116th Congress, which started this month, the House of Representatives agreed to a package of new rules that include key reforms supported by POGO.

While appearing mundane, the process of how Congress legislates and conducts oversight can either foster or thwart those trying to have their voices heard.

Most notably, the House established its first Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman. The office is tasked with developing “best practices for whistleblower intake for offices of the House” and providing “trainings for offices of the House on whistleblower intake.” Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) led efforts to create the office, which the Make It Safe Coalition (POGO is a member of the coalition’s steering committee) also advocated for. The new office is intended to help Congress work more effectively with individuals coming forward to disclose key information on waste, fraud, and abuse.

The rules package also takes steps to strengthen Congressional ethics requirements. For example, the official House of Representatives Code of Conduct will ban Members and employees from serving on corporate boards, and the Committee on Ethics will develop new regulations, in order to avoid conflicts of interests. A prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity will be added, as well as a broadening of the current ban on sexual relationships between Members and staff. Further, all House Members will now take ethics training on an annual basis, where previously the trainings were required only for new Members.

There are other small, but important provisions. The House will have a requirement to give more time for Members, their staff, and the public to review bills in the House, making legislative text publicly available at least 72 hours before debate and votes. The rules also streamlined committee deposition procedures so that Members no longer have to remain present for all proceedings, giving staff more authority and setting the stage for increased oversight. An “Office of Diversity and Inclusion” will be established. And the House will soon have a “Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.”

Are more improvements to how Congress conducts its business necessary? Yes. For example, POGO advocated improvements to Congressional committees’ transparency provisions and oversight procedures, which individual committees could and should adopt. This includes closing loopholes in the disclosures rules for hearing witnesses and Congressional fellows, allowing improved access to classified information for committee Members and their staff, authority to release classified information when in the public interest, and adopting more bipartisan approaches to investigations. Although it does not have the same stringent requirement as the House to establish its rules at the beginning of the Congressional session, the Senate also has the opportunity to strengthen its rules.

Each step taken by Congress to become more transparent, accountable, and ethical can make this critical institution more worthy of the trust and confidence of the American people. POGO will continue to press for implementation of the important improvements to the House rules and advocate for additional improvements throughout Congress.