In the latter days of the Bush Administration, the House of Representatives was rocked by a long, slow burn corruption scandal known mainly by the name of Jack Abramoff, a GOP operative whose lobbying operation was at the center of much of it. But there were actually a group of scandals which collectively grew out of the system of technically legal organized corruption that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay had built to run and permanently dominate the House with an iron system of money and favors. The first major blow-up was the case of disgraced ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (after whom the Golden Dukes are named), the comically iconic Bush/DeLay Era corruption scandal. He literally produced a ‘menu’ for things crooked contractors could buy from him and at what cost. There was the Cunningham scandal and various sub-scandals that grew from it; there was the bigger and more wide-ranging Abramoff scandal and various sub-scandals that grew from it. But what really set the stage was something that happened in November 2004, just after President Bush’s reelection and the dawn of the GOP’s ‘permanent majority.’ That was when DeLay, then under indictment in Texas, got the GOP House caucus to push through a rules change (the ‘DeLay Rule‘) to allow an indicted member of the leadership to remain in office.
Just tonight, at what I suspect is a historically similar moment, we have a replay in the again-GOP-run House.
Before we get to what happened this evening, a bit more background. When the Democrats took back control of the House in the 2006 wave election, they did so with the rampant corruption of the congressional GOP as one of their major campaign themes. So in the Spring of 2008 they created Office of Congressional Ethics, a congressional oversight office which was independent of the members themselves. The House Ethics Committee is supposed to handle ethics questions. But it’s run by members and was generally as good at sweeping ethics issues under the rug as addressing them. More generously, in an era of intense partisanship, it was often simply un-runnable. In any case, the OCE was able to do a lot of things the Ethics Committee could not. It could look into anything it wanted to. It could issue recommendations to the Ethics Committee.
This may all seem a bit like inside baseball. But in the world of oversight, it was actually a pretty big step in having someone with some actual power keeping an eye on members.
Well, tonight in a sort of kick off to the Trump Era, the House GOP Caucus voted to put the OCE back under the authority of the Ethics Committee, which of course has a GOP Chair. Basically that means abolishing the OCE since the whole point of the OCE is that it’s independent of the Committee. One of the sales’ points for this new set up is that it “provide[s] protection [for Members of Congress] against disclosures to the public or other government entities” of the results of any investigations. In other words, if wrongdoing is found the newly-neutered OCE can’t tell anyone. Awesome. They can’t have a press person, issue reports, do anything without the say of the Ethics Committee. In other words, the whole thing is a joke, both the new version of the OCE (now the ““Office of Congressional Complaint Review”) and this whole move. But it’s the Trump Era. Members want to get down to business, get their piece of the action and not have anyone giving them any crap. Just like the big cheese down Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s the Trump Era.
Now, here’s the good part, as it was with the DeLay Rule, the vote is secret. Why? Because this is a caucus vote, i.e., not an actual congressional vote. Let me digress for a moment and explain just one more bit of detail. With each new Congress the majority puts together a bundle of rules that will govern how the House works during that Congress. Mostly this just puts the old rules back in place. But there are always a few changes. All those rules get bundled into one bill and it’s the first thing or one of the first to get voted on. That bill gets approved on a party line vote, just like the Speaker gets elected. If the caucus votes for it, it’s a sure thing. So even though this was just a secret caucus vote, in effect it is binding as law since all Republicans will vote for it in the official vote.
Now, the reports from Capitol Hill are that Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McCarthy warned against the move. And I don’t doubt that that’s true as far as it goes. As in they said, oh please don’t do this. But c’mon! If the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader really don’t want something to happen, they can stop it. They didn’t. The vote passed 119 to 74.
This is all part of Ryan’s ‘better way.’
So who voted for it and who didn’t? If you live in a Republican district by all means call your member of Congress and find out. It’s called Rep. Goodlatte’s proposal to put the OCE under the authority of the Ethics Committee.