In a surprise move, Republicans in the U.S. House endorsed a plan that would curtail the operations of an independent, outside ethics panel, placing it under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee, barring it from releasing information about ethics investigations of lawmakers, and re-naming it with a somewhat bland title of the "Office of Congressional Complaint Review."
"The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who spearheaded the late changes to the House ethics process, arguing that complaints from lawmakers about its operation needed to be addressed.
But reaction from constituents on Goodlatte's own U.S. House website showed a somewhat different reaction:
Democrats and ethics groups - even some with ties to the GOP - swiftly denounced the changes as well.
"Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, as she mocked talk from Republicans that they wanted to "drain the swamp."
"Gutting the independent and nonpartisan ethics office should not be acceptable to anyone of any political party," said Rep. Ted Deustch (D-FL), as Democrats were more than happy to accuse the GOP of trying to undermine ethical rules for the Congress.
The vote for changes to the little known "Office of Government Ethics" came in a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Monday evening; the full House is slated to vote on the plan as part of a package of rules changes for the new Congress that convenes today.
Republicans did not release the tally of who voted for or against the change in their closed-door conference; the vote was reported by news organizations to have been 119 for the change, with 74 Republicans against.
Those numbers would mean that 48 other GOP lawmakers did not vote on the ethics plan.
The Office of Government Ethics was set up back in 2008 after a series of Congressional investigations; the idea was to have an outside panel review accusations against members, and refer those to the Ethics Committee.
But those proceedings have ruffled feathers at times in both political parties.
The GOP plan would make the following changes:
+ The Office of Congressional Ethics would no longer be an independent board - instead it would be rolled under the umbrella of the House Ethics Committee.
+ The board would be renamed, "Office of Congressional Complaint Review."
+ The board would no longer be allowed to make public its referrals to the House Ethics Committee.
+ The board would not be authorized to have any contact with the press or general public.
+ No anonymous allegations against lawmakers would be accepted.
+ The new language prohibits the board from contacting law enforcement authorities if investigators find what they believe is evidence of criminal law.
"The Office of Congressional Ethics is the only independent ethics watchdog on the Hill," the office proudly proclaims on Twitter.
But, maybe, not for long.
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