WASHINGTON, U.S. - House GOP on Monday night voted to approve a change to House rules to weaken the independence of the watchdog called the Office of Congressional Ethics that investigates House lawmakers and staff accused of misconduct.
During a closed-door meeting, by a vote of 119 to 74, House Republicans voted to place the OCE under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee — a panel controlled by party leaders that it is supposed to keep them in check.
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.
Defying their leadership, the House Republicans adopted an amendment by Rep Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, that would prevent staff from making public statements independent of the House Ethics Committee.
In a statement late Monday, Goodlatte said, “It also improves upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify. The (ethics office) has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work.”
The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) handles its own probes into allegations of misconduct by lawmakers.
It can recommend further action to the House Ethics Committee.
The OCE was created in 2008 by the Democrats following the conviction of well-connected lobbyist Jack Abramoff for trying to bribe lawmakers to pass legislation favorable to his clients.
Several Democrats and ethics watchdogs were unhappy with the move since it weakened the only organization charged with overseeing independent investigations.
“Gutting the independent ethics office is exactly the wrong way to start a new Congress,” Chris Carson, spokesman for League of Women Voters, said in a statement.
“This opens the door for special interest corruption just as the new Congress considers taxes and major infrastructure spending,” Carson was quoted as saying in a CNN report.
“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," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Monday night.
"Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress," she added.
The move comes as Republicans are getting set to take control of Congress and the White House for the first time in eight years.
They plan to pursue an aggressive agenda to roll back regulations and policies enacted during President Obama's administration.