There’s Still a Group That Can Probe Alleged Crimes by Members of Congress

by Jim Geraghty

There’s Still a Group That Can Probe Alleged Crimes by Members of Congress…

The headline is not subtle: “House GOP Guts Ethics Panel.”

The details… are a little more complicated:

The 119-to-74 vote during a GOP conference meeting means that the House rules package expected to be adopted Tuesday, the first day of the 115th Congress, would rename the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and place it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee.

Under the proposed new rules, the office could not employ a spokesperson, investigate anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee, which would gain the power to summarily end any OCE probe.

Under the current House ethics regime, the OCE is empowered to release a public report of its findings even if the Ethics Committee chooses not to take further action against a member.

Yes, the House is weakening the powers of an independent entity that was authorized to investigate allegations of wrongdoing. Boo, hiss. But keep some perspective: the Office of Congressional Ethics had two powers: the first was to issue those public reports – giving the accused member of Congress bad publicity. The second was to refer their findings to the House Ethics Committee, which could implement a more serious punishment, like fines and formal reprimands by the full House. Under the old system, the referrals went to the House Ethics Committee, consisting of five Democrats and five Republicans. Under the new system, the no-longer-public referrals will go to the same committee, consisting of five Democrats and five Republicans.

There are other entities that are also independent of Congress and that can investigate these sorts of allegations, with a lot more resources and power: the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, and U.S. Attorneys around the country. And they do so: Representative Chaka Fattah, convicted of racketeering conspiracy, bribery, bank fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, making false statements to a financial institution, and falsification of records. Representative Rick Renzi, convicted on 17 counts. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., pleading guilty to wire and mail fraud. Sometimes a congressman’s wrongdoing ends up caught by local law enforcement, like the time Representative Trey Radel tried to buy cocaine from an undercover cop.

In fact, in the case of Michael Grimm, the House Ethics Committee deferred consideration of the allegations of Grimm upon the Department of Justice’s request; the federal criminal investigation was already underway.

Pop quiz: How many times since 2008 have you heard from the Office of Congressional Ethics? In the past three years, about half of what the office investigated resulted in the office’s board voting to end the investigation or dismiss the matter. In the 114th Congress, the Office of Congressional Ethics began 35 reviews, and referred 17 to the House Ethics Committee. In the 113th Congress, the office began 36 reviews, and referred 16 to the committee. In the 112th Congress, the office began 32 reviews, and referred 13 to the committee.

But apparently it’s impossible to just say that this is a small setback for oversight of Congressional ethics, or just a bad decision. No, in keeping with the Defcon One, Category-Five Permanent Social Media Freak-out, this has to be the worst decision ever.

Vox warns the decision “could signal a wider acceptance of corruption.” “Back to the auction house!” cries Josh Marshall. Paul Krugman concludes, “we are entering an era of epic corruption.” (Remember, he said the concerns about the Clinton Foundation were “bizarre.”)

It would be better if the House had that independent entity that could issue a public report, rather than giving the House Ethics Committee complete control over what gets released to the public. But the notion that this change legalizes corruption or represents some sort of enormous sweeping change is another triumph of the narrative over the facts.

Wait, Never Mind, Russia’s Not Trying to Destroy Vermont After All

Hey, remember that ominous Washington Post story about Russia hacking a Vermont electrical company, and the scary warnings from Vermont Democrats that Vladimir Putin was attempting to shut down the grid in the middle of winter?

This morning the Post reports, “Whoops!”

As federal officials investigate suspicious Internet activity found last week on a Vermont utility computer, they are finding evidence that the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility, according to experts and officials close to the investigation.

An employee at Burlington Electric Department was checking his Yahoo email account Friday and triggered an alert indicating that his computer had connected to a suspicious IP address associated by authorities with the Russian hacking operation that infiltrated the Democratic Party. Officials told the company that traffic with this particular address is found elsewhere in the country and is not unique to Burlington Electric, suggesting the company wasn’t being targeted by the Russians. Indeed, officials say it is possible that the traffic is benign, since this particular IP address is not always connected to malicious activity.

That Nagging Consequence of a Minimum Wage Hike

Massachusetts raises its minimum wage to $11 per hour… and the results are predictable: nice for the current workers, but bad news for people looking for a new job.

For some small business owners in Massachusetts, however, the effect of the wage increases has been significant.

The owner of two family entertainment centers in Massachusetts said she has reduced her staff to 20 people, down from 50, over the past two years, to counteract rising payroll costs.

The employer, who asked not to be named because she feared repercussions from workers’ advocates, said she and her husband have cut their hours of operation, replaced their DJ with canned music, and are working more themselves to stay afloat. They have also stopped hiring teenagers in favor of more experienced workers.

ADDENDA: I’m scheduled to chat with Bill Martinez on his syndicated radio program on at 11:46 Eastern and Tim Farley of Sirius XM POTUS at 12:25 Eastern.

The Morning Jolt

By Jim Geraghty