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House GOP Votes To Strip Independence From Congressional Ethics Office

Work continues Dec. 28 on the stand for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington. Congress returns Tuesday, and one of the first business items will be voting on proposed the rules for the session — including folding the House's independent ethics office into a Republican-led committee.

The House Republican Conference voted Monday night to approve a change to House rules to weaken the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics and place it under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee — a panel controlled by party leaders.

It will be part of a broader House Rules package voted on by the full body on Tuesday, after the 115th Congress officially convenes and the House elects a speaker.

It's a move that is already causing a backlash among Democrats, who say it's hypocritical given that President-elect Donald Trump was elected vowing to "drain the swamp" in Washington.

The Office of Congressional Ethics was established in 2008 under House Democrats, in response to the era of lobbying scandals made notable by Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist who went to prison on corruption charges.

It is the first independent body to have an oversight role in House ethics. There is no Senate counterpart. The OCE independently reviews allegations of misconduct against House members and staff, and if deemed appropriate refers them to the House Ethics Committee for review. The OCE cannot independently punish lawmakers for any ethics violations.

The language approved Monday night, authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would prevent staff from making public statements independent of the House Ethics Committee.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was speaker when the OCE was created, criticized the decision in a statement.

"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," she wrote. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."

In a statement, Goodlatte said his rules change would "strengthen" the OCE and improve due process rights for those subject to ethical investigations.

"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," Goodlatte wrote.

The Goodlatte amendment still would allow the OCE to accept and review complaints, but it would bar the consideration of anonymous complaints. It also would rename it the "Office of Congressional Complaint Review."

It's not clear whether House Speaker Paul Ryan would intervene to stop the language from making it into the final House rules package to be adopted on Tuesday. In November, Ryan stopped the House from bringing back earmarks — provisions that in the past allowed members to direct spending to specific projects.

"We just had a 'drain the swamp' election," Ryan reportedly said at the time. "Let's not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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