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Advocacy groups denounce GOP proposals to ‘gut’ ethics office

Rules package would effectively oust Democrats, make hiring harder

New York Republican Rep.-elect George Santos, center, votes in a quorum call on the House floor Tuesday prior to members being sworn in.
New York Republican Rep.-elect George Santos, center, votes in a quorum call on the House floor Tuesday prior to members being sworn in. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ethics advocacy groups are sounding alarms that a proposal from House Republicans to change the Office of Congressional Ethics could gut the watchdog, leaving it unable to function. 

The proposals, part of a package of new rules for the chamber, appear subtle but would have a major impact on the OCE, ethics groups say. 

First, House Republicans have proposed term limits on OCE board members, a move that critics of the change say would disproportionately affect Democratic members of the bipartisan body. Second, the OCE would have to make hiring decisions within the first 30 days, a potentially impossible task if the board does not have a full slate. 

The changes are more subtle than proposals in 2017 that caused a backlash that included criticism from then-President-elect Donald Trump and led the GOP to reverse course.   

“At first glance, it comes across as neutral, but it seems clear it hamstrings OCE,” said Aaron Scherb, senior director of legislative affairs for Common Cause. “Without a full slate, then they can’t really take actions. Another provision says they have to make hiring decisions within the first 30 days, but they can’t do that without a full slate of board members.” 

The OCE was established in 2008 to offer more transparency to the public about congressional ethics probes and has investigated members of both parties. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who is running to be speaker, faces a possible probe, as do other House Republicans, for not complying with subpoenas from the Jan. 6 select committee. 

“It’s clearly designed to emasculate the Office of Congressional Ethics,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the group Public Citizen.  

Rep.-elect George Santos, a Republican from New York, also faces calls for an ethics investigation after reports uncovered discrepancies and apparent falsehoods in his work and education history. An OCE report on him could pose “quite an embarrassment to the Republican Party,” Holman said. Though members, such as Santos, still would be subject to the separate House Ethics Committee, that panel does not have to make its reports public. 

Holman and others say they are sending out action alerts to grassroots organizations, such as the liberal group, to try to get voters to contact their members of Congress to oppose the OCE changes. The House will vote on the rules package after members elect a speaker. 

“It’s a matter of hours,” Holman said Tuesday morning. “We’re trying to whip up the same type of groundswell [as 2017]. It’s going to be tougher this time because the changes are more subtle.” 

Elise Wirkus, legislative director for another ethics-focused group, Issue One, said in a news release that the OCE was “vital to ensuring that the public has confidence in the integrity of Congress, that members of Congress are held accountable, and that corruption is kept out of the halls of power. The proposal by incoming GOP House leadership to gut the OCE is a shameful and cynical move that must be vigorously opposed.”

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