**Update:** The House voted to strike down their controversial plan for the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Amid a whirlwind of complaints from constituents, watchdog groups, some lawmakers and even President-elect Donald Trump, House members began their first official day of session with the reversal.
Original: In a surprise move, House Republicans voted yesterday anonymously and behind closed doors to make fundamental changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics—the independent group that investigates Congress members.
The Office of Congressional Ethics was formed in 2008 as a bipartisan measure after three members of Congress where convicted and served jail time for issues of corruption. Since its inception, people have criticized the group for being more aggressive than the House Ethics Committee usually is with its investigation of complaints.
The Office of Congressional Ethics is overseen by a board made up of six people who are not legislators. They cannot subpoena members, but they have a specialized team of investigators who conduct in-depth interviews and other research. They will also use news reports or public complaints as part of their investigations. Once they have their findings, they report them to the House Ethics Committee, which does its own separate review.
The Office of Congressional Ethics is able to remain truly effective because even if the House Ethics Committee chooses not to pursue an issue, they are still required to release the report from the Office of Congressional Ethics.
With the new rules, which would last for two years, the Office of Congressional Ethics would not take anonymous complaints and all of their investigations would be overseen by the House Ethics Committee—made up of members of the House. The group’s name would change to the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, they would be barred from releasing information to the public and contacting law enforcement without prior approval and wouldn’t be able to have anyone on staff who is responsible for communicating with the public.
The measure, introduced by Bob Goodlatte, the House’s judiciary chairman, passed 119-74 and is being lauded as a more fair way for ethics investigations to be carried out.
In a statement, Goodlatte said, in part:
The amendment builds upon and strengthens the existing Office of Congressional Ethics by maintaining its primary area of focus of accepting and reviewing complaints from the public and referring them, if appropriate, to the Committee on Ethics. It also improves upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify. The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work.
“Now you can’t make a false accusation,” Arizona Representative Paul Gosar told The Huffington Post. “Now you can answer back to the people that make accusations against you. This has been flawed from the very get-go.”
Nancy Pelosi publicly said: “Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
Congressional watchdog organizations are standing against this new change, calling it a step backwards in congressional ethics.
Daniel Schuman, policy director of Demand Progress, told HuffPost: “With today’s action— taken behind closed doors and with no opportunity for public debate — the House now rolls back the clock to an era of corruption and decay. We will all be the worse for it.”
According to House aides, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan spoke out against the measure along with Kevin McCarthy of California, however, the vote was behind closed doors so there is no public record of who voted for and against it.