Facing Public Outrage, House Republicans Back Down on Gutting Ethics Watchdog

January 3, 2017

Public Citizen's Lisa Gilbert says the Office of Congressional Ethics was targeted because it is an effective check on Congressional misconduct

Public Citizen's Lisa Gilbert says the Office of Congressional Ethics was targeted because it is an effective check on Congressional misconduct



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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: The Republican led US Congress got off to a shaky new session on Tuesday, January 3rd. The Republican agenda of cutting taxes, repealing Obamacare and rolling back financial and environmental regulations, was largely overshadowed by a surprise move by Republicans in the House, in a closed door meeting late on Monday, to weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which is in charge of investigating ethic breaches by lawmakers.

After public outcry and a private meeting on Tuesday, Republicans backtracked on the move.

For a response, we reached Lisa Gilbert, with Public Citizen, a public advocacy group that was involved in creating the OCE.

LISA GILBERT: Our response is that public pressure works. I think we were thrilled to see that as soon as the negative press started rolling in, that a lot of the members started having second thoughts.

JAISAL NOOR: You talked a little bit about history and the roll it’s played. I guess it was founded in 2008, so it’s been around for a little while.

LISA GILBERT: This office came about in the wake of a series of scandals, where folks like Jack Abramoff were proven to be wining and dining members of Congress. Influence peddling was rampant. We saw several members actually go to jail for offences of ethics, and so there was outrage and we had a drain-the-swamp election, much like the momentum and tone of the election we just had, actually.

So, as soon as the Democrats came into power in the House, Nancy Pelosi as the new Speaker, did two things. She passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, and she instituted the resolution to create the Office of Congressional Ethics.

It’s been incredibly effective to have an independent cop-on-the-beat, that can take complaints and turn them into investigations and has required transparency. We saw very few things come out of the House Ethics Committee –- something like five investigations in the five years prior to the creation of the OCE. We saw 20 investigations happen between 2009 and 2014, because of the influence of the Office of Congressional Ethics. It works. And that’s why they don’t like it.

JAISAL NOOR: Much of the corporate media has — is getting the credit to Donald Trump, and saying this move came as a result of Trump’s tweet.

LISA GILBERT: In terms of whether this is due to Donald Trump, I mean, I would say it’s not, and we shouldn’t give him too much credit on this. If you look directly at what he actually said in his tweet, he wasn’t criticizing changing the Office of Congressional Ethics. What he was criticizing is the timing of this move, which obviously, was ill timed to have it be the very first thing that congressional Republicans did. He said you should be focusing on other things; you should be focusing on healthcare or taxes. He didn’t say, you know, the OCE does not need to be reined in, which would have been an appropriate critique and the right move.

JAISAL NOOR: Republicans argue that their proposed measure would actually strengthen it, and they were arguing that it’s cutting bureaucracy; they’re cutting… so, they’re saying this is actually draining the swamp because it’s about streamlining how government works. How do you respond to that?

LISA GILBERT: I think it’s a little bit like the chickens in the hen house saying we should take the foxes away, and that’s all to the good. Of course, those who are watched-dogged by the OCE don’t want to see it have all of its powers. What these changes would’ve done is subjected the independent Office of Congressional Ethics to oversight by the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of members of Congress, and is a proven weak and non-transparent entity.

The reason the OCE was created was because the House Ethics Committee was a black box, where very few investigations or enforcement actions came out. It’s very hard for members of Congress to check each other. No one wants to be the first to call another member of Congress out. And so this independent entity has made a huge difference since its existence has been in effect, and of course members don’t like that, it’s checking their behavior.

JAISAL NOOR: What can this teach us about the role that the media and the public can play as a check on the Donald Trump presidency and also this new Congress, which is entirely controlled by the Republicans?

LISA GILBERT: Yeah. I hope we all take an important lesson away, which is that those entities, the press writ large, and the public, the constituents of those we’ve elected, can have an impact still.

I think there’s often a sense of powerlessness when you think of impacting members of Congress: you know, will they listen to us? This proves that they will and that shame still works, and when it comes to issues like this, whether it’s ethics or campaign finance or things that are just outrageously unpopular, to move the wrong direction on, Congress can be shamed, and so we should continue to utilize that tool.

JAISAL NOOR: All right, thank you so much for joining us.

LISA GILBERT: Yeah. Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

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