House Republicans are expected to curtail the power of an independent congressional ethics body just as it was weighing whether to open investigations into GOP lawmakers who defied January 6 select committee subpoenas and a new Republican who fabricated his past during his election campaign.
The new House rules package that governs the Office of Congressional Ethics – which was drafted by the incoming Republican majority leadership and will almost certainly be adopted – makes two major changes to the body that would significantly undercut its ability to function.
Although seemingly innocuous, the changes appear to have been drafted to strike at the main vulnerabilities of OCE and defang its investigative powers for at least the next two years, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The timing and nature of the changes have concerned people close to OCE since they come while the board was considering whether to formally authorize a flurry of investigations into Republican lawmakers as their party prepares to take the majority in the House.
Should the OCE open investigations into the members who defied subpoenas from the January 6 committee last year – including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy – or Long Island congressman George Santos, caught lying about his resume during his campaign, it would ultimately result in public reports with potentially embarrassing conclusions for Republicans.
The concern surrounding OCE revolves around whether the changes are political: if details about Santos, for instance, led to his ouster, it could imperil the legislating ability of the razor-thin Republican majority, which has already caused McCarthy to struggle to win the Speaker’s race.
Santos would probably find himself under immediate investigationsince OCE has the power to retrospectively examine potential campaign malfeasance and violations of federal election law that arise during successful congressional election campaigns.
Buried in the proposed rules for the next Congress is a reintroduction of term limits for members of the bipartisan OCE board, typically made up of former lawmakers and political officials, and restricting its ability to hire staff to the first 30 days of the new congressional session .
The main issue with the rules changes is that the reintroduction of term limits would force out three out of four Democratic-appointed members of the OCE board which decides whether to launch investigations, according to people with knowledge of how the body functions.
The incoming House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries would have the ability to immediately name replacements to the board, but such appointments typically take months and finding suitable candidates remains an arduous process, the people said.
That is where OCE hits the second hurdle, the sources said. The new rules also require OCE to hire staff within 30 days of the new Congress – a window that would likely expire before the board is complete, and potentially leaving it with its current staff of just one investigative counsel.
In essence, the two-pronged changes would likely leave OCE without a board long enough to ensure it runs out of time to hire investigators and conduct oversight over Congress, particularly when it remains the only office that can accept referrals against lawmakers from the public.
The reason for the changes was not clear and a spokesman for McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the incoming House judiciary committee chairman Jim Jordan, who defied a January 6 committee subpoena, said he wasn’t involved in drafting the changes.
Still, House Republicans have long despised OCE for its penchant for opening investigations into members of Congress that have consistently been far more aggressive than those by the House ethics committee – although the targets of the probes have historically been bipartisan in nature.
Most recently, OCE investigators pursued the former Democratic chairwoman of the House oversight committee, Carolyn Maloney, and concluded there was reason to believe she improperly solicited and accepted preferential treatment to attend the annual Met Gala in New York, possibly in violation of federal law.
The most prominent case brought by OCE also focused on a Democrat, the former chairwoman of the House financial service committee Maxine Waters, who was accused of intervening with the treasury department to help a struggling bank in which her husband owned stock, although she was ultimately cleared.
The body was created in 2008 after a string of ethics complaints starting around a decade ago, including bribery allegations against three lawmakers – Democrat William Jefferson and Republicans Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney – who were convicted and served time in jail.
OCE does not have subpoena power. But overseen by a bipartisan board, it has its own team of investigators who spend months conducting closed-door interviews with witnesses and reviewing documents based on confidential tips from the public or news media reports.
Once an investigation is complete, the body can refer the matter to the full House ethics committee, which conducts its own inquiry. Crucially, however, even if the ethics committee dismisses a case, it is required to release the full OCE report, creating a deterrent for lawmakers.
House Republicans previously tried to gut OCE in 2017 by preventing them from taking anonymous complaints and bringing all of its work under the House ethics committee, which is made up of lawmakers who answer to themselves and their respective parties – until national outcry forced them to reverse course.