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- House Republicans voted on Monday to hobble the Office of Congressional Ethics.
- The body will now likely be limited in its ability to carry out investigations due to staffing shortages.
- George Santos, facing multiple investigations and ethics complaints, called the changes “fantastic.”
The House of Representatives on Monday passed a new set of rules to govern the chamber that will severely weaken the ability of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) to investigate members of Congress for potential wrongdoing.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Republican Rep. George Santos of New York said of the rules package, which passed by a 220-213 margin, in a brief interview with Insider at the Capitol on Monday.
The changes come just days after Santos — who was revealed to have lied about much of his background, is under investigation in multiple countries, and faces at least two OCE complaints related to his financial disclosures — was sworn into Congress.
“The proposed rules package severely curtails the ability of OCE to do the job it exists to do,” a constellation of good-government groups wrote in a letter published on January 4.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, first established in 2008, is a quasi-independent body tasked with investigating allegations of misconduct against members of Congress. It then makes a determination as to whether those allegations are worth investigating further, at which point it makes a referral to the House Ethics Committee, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
But the rules package for the 118th Congress, put forward by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, re-imposes eight-year term limits for the OCE’s board members, made up of former members of Congress, that were originally laid out when the office was established in 2008 and later extended in subsequent congresses.
The practical effect of that will be the immediate removal of three of four Democratic-appointed board members: former Reps. Mike Barnes, Belinda Pinckney, and Karan English. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries can appoint their replacements, but that could take months.
Furthermore, the rules prevent the office from hiring new staff after one month and require four board members to sign off on any staffing decision. That means the office — which currently has just one investigative counsel on staff and is actively seeking to hire two more — likely won’t have enough time to hire new staff, and will not be able to fill any vacancies that might occur in the next two years.
Taken together, the rules will make it extraordinarily difficult for the body — which otherwise operates independently of Congress and has generally been more effective at investigating wrong-doing than self-policing Ethics Committee in the House or Senate — will not have the necessary resources it needs to carry out its work.
That means less ability to investigate wrongdoing, and more time needed to carry out investigations.
But Santos, who has otherwise declined to comment on the myriad scandals facing him, disagreed with the idea that the office would be weakened by the rules.
“I think it just gives them more power,” he said. He added that the newly-imposed rules wouldn’t “allow people to sit there without term limits,” apparently referring to the board members. “I believe in term limits.”
He also brushed off the staffing restrictions, saying it would allow “new members of the board to pick their discretionary members” without acknowledging that all of this must happen in just 30 days.
“It’s a good thing for transparency, it’s a good thing for Americans,” said Santos. “Renewal!”
A ‘disturbing development’
House Democrats also condemned the changes in interviews with Insider at the Capitol on Monday.
“I don’t understand how anyone interprets the results of the midterms to say we need less ethics standards,” said Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California. “I have a lot of respect for the Office of Congressional Ethics. I think they’ve operated in a way that is fair, bipartisan, fact-based, and they there’s no justification for doing this.”
Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia — who told Insider that the rules package would render OCE a “toothless body in a forgotten hallway of the Capitol complex” in a statement — didn’t rule out seeking to fix it via legislation in the future.
The OCE has allowed for public accountability of several members of Congress during the last two years.
The body made referrals for several Republicans related to STOCK Act violations, led to significant fines for former Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina for improperly promoting a cryptocurrency, and referred a case against Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House committee.
Ocasio-Cortez also condemned the rules changes, saying it was a “disturbing development” while declining to comment on her own ethics case — though she alluded to “spurious claims” filed against Democrats.
“It does call into question if they’re just going to remove it every time they’re in the majority,” said Ocasio-Cortez.
McCarthy’s office did not immediately respond to a detailed set of questions from Insider seeking an explanation of the proposed changes.
In 2017, House Republicans voted in conference to subsume the office under the House Ethics Committee, effectively neutering it. But they reversed course when President Donald Trump tweeted his opposition.
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017