At the beginning of this week, while many of us were still nursing New Year’s hangovers, House Republicans kicked off the 115th Congress with a rushed, secretive vote to gut the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the watchdog entity that oversees Members’ conduct in office. Press reports suggested that, in the new era of unified Republican control, Congress was about to declare open season on the system of checks and balances that we have in place to deter government corruption.
But then things took an unexpected turn. As soon as it was made public, the GOP proposal fell under withering criticism, including a deluge of calls from angry constituents and even a (mild) Twitter rebuke from President-elect Trump himself. Less than 24 hours after the caucus voted to adopt it, the proposal was shelved. The whole episode was a timely reminder that, regardless of who is in control in Washington, the ultimate check on abuse of power is the public itself. When ordinary citizens choose to act, they have tremendous power.
That such an obscure government office could provoke this much of a firestorm is itself remarkable. OCE’s sole purpose is to review complaints, conduct investigations, and prepare public reports regarding possible ethics violations by House members and staff. It was created in 2008 in response to a series of embarrassing scandals that landed several former members of Congress in federal prison. Previously the office’s investigative functions belonged solely to the House Ethics Committee, a bipartisan panel composed of three Republicans and three Democrats who were, shockingly, often reluctant to take any action against their House colleagues. OCE’s creation produced a noticeable uptick in investigations, though lacking any sanction authority or even subpoena power, the office is hardly the Star Chamber some of its critics have made it out to be.
Nevertheless, its efforts clearly irritated some members of Congress. The GOP proposal, drafted by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, would have renamed OCE the “Office of Congressional Complaint Review,” put it directly under the thumb of the Ethics Committee, and barred it from engaging in any communications with the public or other law enforcement agencies. To see where that would have led, one need only consider the example of America’s evenly divided—and epically dysfunctional—campaign finance regulator, the Federal Election Commission. The FEC regularly deadlocks on enforcement matters, including those its nonpartisan staff recommend pursuing.
For now, at least, OCE won’t suffer a similar fate, although the issue hasn’t gone away. Republicans say they want to work with Democrats to revisit potential changes over the summer. To the extent those changes include efforts to streamline the byzantine investigative process, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, though rather than clipping OCE’s wings, the best solution might be to give it more authority to conduct complete investigations on its own—for example, by allowing it to issue subpoenas. Regardless, the idea of making OCE subservient to the very people it is supposed to hold accountable should be taken off the table.
Of course, even if that happens, this was just one battle, which pales against the likely fights ahead (including over the incoming Trump Administration’s unprecedented conflicts of interest). It might seem baffling that anyone would come away from an election cycle dominated by calls to “drain the swamp” thinking they had a mandate to gut ethics protections, but the reality is that many in Washington believe this was nothing more than a “cute” slogan with no real content. Their attitude is a variation of the oft-repeated theme that “nobody really cares” about good government protections. Such cynicism fosters not only corruption, but other corrosive behavior, like the North Carolina legislature’s recent nakedly partisan effort to grab power away from the state’s newly-elected governor. That episode too may be a harbinger of things to come.
In the end, however, democratic norms are often more resilient than they seem. The lesson from the abortive effort to hobble OCE is that those values are worth fighting for. Sometimes victory can come when you least expect it.