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House Republicans take aim at congressional ethics rules (again)

After some failed attempts, House Republicans have succeeded in undermining Congress' ethics rules.


Eighteen years ago this month, the House Republican majority took office and immediately got to work gutting congressional ethics rules. GOP members saw the move as necessary, in large part because then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was caught up in a variety of controversies, and leaving the rules intact put his career in jeopardy.

A controversy soon followed, and Republicans agreed to undo the changes: The House ultimately voted 406 to 20 to restore the original ethics rules. (Among the 20 votes who wanted weaker ethics rules were future Sen. Marsha Blackburn and a congressman from Indiana by the name of ... wait for it ... Mike Pence.)

Twelve years later, in 2017, a House GOP majority also planned to weaken congressional ethics rules, before ultimately backing down. Even Donald Trump — who has never exactly been a paragon of virtue — suggested at the time that his party was on the wrong track.

This year, a new House Republican majority is getting to work, and once again, one of their principal goals is undermining congressional ethics. GOP lawmakers approved their sweeping new rules package last night, and as The New York Times noted, the party is once again targeting a familiar priority.

The rules could hamper investigations by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which undertakes bipartisan inquiries and then makes recommendations for discipline to the Ethics Committee.

Mother Jones did a nice job summarizing the details yesterday:

Under McCarthy’s rules ... the [Office of Congressional Ethics] won’t be able to hire any new employees unless the majority of the office’s governing board approve. That rule would go into effect in 30 days and will generally make it more difficult to hire new staff if, for instance, there are any big new investigations to be undertaken. ... Another clause in McCarthy’s rules enforces term limits on members of the governing board (which is different and independent from the Ethics Committee), which would immediately kick three Democrats off of the OCE’s governing board.

I’ve seen some suggestions in recent days that the new GOP majority is completely shuttering the Office of Congressional Ethics. That’s not quite right. But make no mistake: Republicans have made these deliberate changes in order to weaken the office and prevent it from getting to work.

The editorial board of The Washington Post added over the weekend, “Gutting the independent ethics watchdog as the first official act of the 118th Congress is clearly not what Americans wanted when they voted in the midterms. We fear that tying the hands of the OCE, especially limiting the ability to hire staff, would invite a new era of corruption.”

The rules package nevertheless passed late yesterday, with every Republican but one approving the overhaul.

Asked what he thought about the new set of rules, Rep. George Santos said, “I think it’s fantastic.”

Given the likelihood that the New York Republican will soon face an ethics investigation, the reaction wasn’t too surprising.