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Law & the Courts

There Are Still Groups That Can Probe Alleged Crimes by Members of Congress…

From the Tuesday Morning Jolt

There Are Still Groups 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, also independent of Congress, 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: Rep. Chaka Fattah, convicted of racketeering conspiracy, bribery, bank fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, making false statements to a financial institution, and falsification of records; Rep. Rick Renzi, convicted on 17 counts; Rep. 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 Rep. 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 Freakout, 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. 

UPDATE: House Speaker Paul Ryan issues a statement:

“After eight years of operation, many members believe the Office of Congressional Ethics is in need of reform to protect due process and ensure it is operating according to its stated mission. I want to make clear that this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the Office will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress. The Office will continue to be governed by a bipartisan independent outside board with ultimate decision-making authority. The Office is still expected to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public. It will still investigate them thoroughly and independently. And the outside board will still decide whether or not evidence exists to warrant a full investigation by the House Ethics Committee. With the amendment adopted last night, the bipartisan, evenly-divided House Ethics Committee will now have oversight of the complaints office. But the Office is not controlled by the Committee, and I expect that oversight authority to be exercised solely to ensure the Office is properly following its rules and laws, just as any government entity should. I have made clear to the new Chair of the House Ethics Committee that it is not to interfere with the Office’s investigations or prevent it from doing its job. All members of Congress are required to earn the public’s trust every single day, and this House will hold members accountable to the people.”

ANOTHER UPDATE: And after all that, nevermind. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy offered a motion to restore the current set-up for the Office of Congressional Ethics, and his motion was adopted by unanimous consent. So the House GOP endures a bad news cycle and no lasting changes to the OCE, at least for now.

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