Politics

House GOP reverses move — backed by 2 Miami Republicans — to cripple ethics office

U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, standing at her immediate left, favored a short-lived move by House Republicans to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, right, opposed it.
U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, standing at her immediate left, favored a short-lived move by House Republicans to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, right, opposed it. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Republicans kicked off the 115th Congress by deciding in secret Monday night to cripple an independent ethics office — only to reverse their widely criticized position Tuesday afternoon.

Before the House GOP took back its plan to curtail the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics, however, two of three Miami Republican members of Congress said they supported the ill-received move.

U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both relative moderates, told the Miami Herald on Tuesday morning that they favored a legislative amendment that would rename the OCE — created eight years ago after a series of congressional scandals — as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review. The OCCR would have reported to the GOP-controlled House Ethics Committee, instead of acting independently.

The proposal, on the eve of a swearing-in day full of pomp and circumstance, drew immediate rebuke from Democrats, some Republicans and government watchdog groups. Even President-elect Donald Trump criticized the timing — if not the substance — of House Republicans’ decision, tweeting Tuesday morning that dealing with the “unfair” ethics office shouldn’t be Congress’ first priority.

“Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!” he wrote, adding “#DTS,” a reference to one of his campaign slogans, “drain the swamp.”

Still, Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo defended their position early Tuesday.

“The reforms will allow for due process rights for all parties involved and will ensure a fair hearing as Members of Congress seek to better serve our constituents,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

“The Office of Congressional Ethics has not lived up to its stated mission and reforms are long overdue to strengthen its ability to take complaints from the public, complete independent investigations, and provide due process for those facing allegations of misconduct,” Curbelo spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said in a statement that also noted House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “commitment to protect the Office’s independence.”

Ryan, though, had opposed the legislative amendment, offered by Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte at a meeting of the House GOP conference held Monday night, a federal holiday. The conference adopted the Goodlatte amendment with a 119-74 vote. Because party meetings are private, there was no public accounting of how each member voted.

Opposition to the amendment did not neatly break down along moderate-vs.-conservative GOP lines. Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen disagreed with Ryan, whose lead they usually follow. And a third Miami Republican, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, told the Herald in a statement Tuesday that while the ethics office needs an overhaul, he was against Goodlatte’s amendment, which would have been attached to a broader law on House rules.

“The Office of Congressional Ethics is in dire need of reform,” Diaz-Balart said. “Members of Congress must be held accountable to the highest standard in a process that is fair and just. I strongly believe the way to do this is in a bipartisan, open discussion through legislation, not through the rules package.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the House GOP had called for an emergency conference meeting, in which members changed their minds and abandoned the short-lived Goodlatte amendment.

After that vote — also held behind close doors — Curbelo issued a new statement.

“The House ethics process needs to be reformed in order to better investigate allegations of misconduct,” he said. “I support referring this matter to the House Ethics committee where Republicans and Democrats can work together on bipartisan reforms that would ensure Members of Congress are held accountable while given due process to address accusations.”

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