South Florida Republicans Split Over GOP Move to Weaken Ethics Watchdog

Jan 3, 2017

House Republicans abruptly reversed course Tuesday and abandoned a plan that would have gutted an independent office that investigates wrongdoing by representatives in Congress.

Republican lawmakers had announced on Monday night that they had voted privately to put Congress in control of investigating its own members, stripping the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics. Two of the three South Florida representatives, U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, voted in favor of the measure. 

The proposed changes would have barred the office from relaying information to law enforcement, collecting anonymous tips or speaking publicly about its work.

The plan was received with outcry across the political spectrum and, in a meeting Tuesday, the  Republican conference decided to scrap the plan.

Ros-Lehtinen explained her original vote of “Yes” by saying oversight from Congress would ensure a “fair hearing” for  members of Congress being investigated.  Curbelo and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart did not initially answer questions about how they voted. 

 

An email from an aide to Representative Ros-Lehtinen explaining her position.

Curbelo vowed to protect the office’s independence, and Diaz-Balart said any reforms should come through legislation, not through the rulemaking process, which takes place in private. 

In an email, a spokesperson for Curbelo said he is committed to protecting the OCE's independence.

The Office of Congressional Ethics was created in 2008 after a string of scandals that sent members of Congress to jail. It went on to investigate Democrats and Republicans alike for junkets to Azerbaijan and self-serving business dealings in office, inquiries that hastened the resignation of more than one representative in Congress.

Richard Painter, who served as an ethics counselor in the George W. Bush administration, compared the proposed changes to letting foxes guard the henhouse.