Congresswoman defends GOP push to gut ethics rules: it’s ‘transparency’

Office of Congressional Ethics had been set up in response to Tom DeLay-era ‘culture of corruption’

Then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA), after pleading guilty to bribery charges in 2005.
Then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA), after pleading guilty to bribery charges in 2005.

As Republicans rush to gut the independent ethics process in the U.S. House, one prominent supporter of the effort claimed Tuesday that the move was actually a step toward “transparency” and “due recourse” for those representatives accused of wrongdoing.

The Republican majority voted Monday night to recommend a rules package for the 115th Congress that replaces the independent Office of Congressional Ethics with a not-so-independent Office of Congressional Complaint Review, under the control of the House Ethics Committee.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who backed the move in the closed-door GOP caucus meeting, said on CNN on Tuesday that this move would guarantee due process — for members of Congress — by eliminating the possibility of anonymous tips against them.

“If someone is being accused of something, let somebody know who is accusing them,” she argued, saying the move will give “individuals the opportunity to have some due recourse and to know who is accusing them, which is not something that individuals have known, and members of both conferences have wanted to see this type [of] transparency brought to the office.”

The rule change, which will be voted on by the full House on Tuesday and does not require senate or presidential agreement, was reportedly pushed by Republican members of Congress who had been investigated by the independent ethics office.


The last time the House agreed to loosen ethics rules was in 2005, when the Republican majority made it easier to dismiss complaints in cases of a deadlock in the evenly-divided Ethics Committee. Soon after, the GOP-controlled House became synonymous with a “culture of corruption.” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) resigned days after a key aide pleaded guilty to conspiracy and corruption charges. Speaker of the House Denny Hastert (R-IL) came under intense criticism for his lack of action after learning that Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) had sent sexually explicit messages to a 16-year-old House page (his own history of sexually abusing young men did not become public until 2015). Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) resigned after confessing to taking bribes. Members of Congress received millions in privately sponsored trips to places like Paris, Hawaii, and Italy. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others from the now-infamous K Street Project illegally provided gifts and aid to members of the GOP majority, in exchange for legislative favors — and Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) resigned after pleading guilty to related conspiracy charges. Defense contractor Mitchell Wade of MZM confessed to making illegal campaign contributions to Reps. Virgil Goode (R-VA) and Katherine Harris (R-FL).

In November 2006, Republicans lost a stunning 31 seats and their majority. About a year after taking the majority, House Democrats created the Office of Congressional Ethics to provide an independent check on this sort of corruption.

By 2010, when Republicans successfully sought to reclaim their House majority, then-Republican leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said his party had learned its lesson and would not “tolerate any ethics violation or behavior, in terms of compromising the ethics that people expect us to have as their representatives.” He vowed to “institute a zero-tolerance policy,” saying, “We understand there were reasons for our being fired in ’06 and ’08. Some of that had to do with ethics violations. I mean, we had several members under public investigations during the time of the ’06 elections. I think we’ve learned that that’s not a good way to gain the confidence of the people and that we ought to be instituting a zero-tolerance policy here.” Still, at least 10 Republicans continued to serve in the Republican conference under Cantor’s watch, despite ethics investigations.

Now with Cantor gone, House Republicans have decided that rather than even pretend to want to “drain the swamp,” they will simply revert to their pre-2006 approach. Even President-elect Donald Trump questioned the move, tweeting on Tuesday that this perhaps should not have been the first priority for Congress.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) conceded that he is worried that the move will make the House Republican Conference look tone deaf. Still, he told MSNBC on Tuesday, he supported the move because “we got along without the OCE for a long time.” He added that the right of members of Congress to face their accusers “goes right back to Jesus himself, standing before the high priest.”