DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This country's 150th Congress begins its work today, and this is a new era here in Washington with Republicans controlling, well, almost everything, both the House and Senate and soon the White House.
Before the new Congress assembles today at noon, House Republicans have already taken a controversial vote behind closed doors. The vote held late last night would weaken an independent ethics office that investigates complaints against members of the House. A majority of Republicans say this new rule would make investigations more transparent and more fair. But Democrats say it runs counter to President-elect Donald Trump's pledge to, quote, "drain the swamp."
And let's talk about this with NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis who's in the studio this morning. Sue, good morning.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So what happened here? What was this vote, and what does it do?
DAVIS: So at the beginning of every Congress, the House has to vote on the rules that govern itself, and the majority party, which is Republicans in this case, take a first bite of that apple. And they met last night to make changes to those House rules before it goes to a vote today. And Bob Goodlatte is a Republican from Virginia, and he made this proposal, which was not known ahead of time. We didn't know this was going to happen last night.
GREENE: This took some of his Republican colleagues by surprise presumably.
DAVIS: And including their party leadership, and effectively what this says is the Office of Congressional Ethics can no longer - which is an outside group, it is not governed by Congress - that it can no longer investigate anonymous complaints made against members of Congress, that the existing Health (ph) Ethics Committee that is made up of members of Congress can tell it when to or when not to start investigations, and it can make fewer things public that it used to be able to disclose in terms of how many investigations they had and who they were investigating.
GREENE: This sounds very important. So there was an independent body that would investigate complaints, ethics complaints, against lawmakers. Now, a House committee run by actual lawmakers, Republican lawmakers themselves. Or actually this committee is actually divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, right?
DAVIS: The existing House Ethics Committee is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
GREENE: Oh, OK, so a bipartisan committee (unintelligible).
DAVIS: It is a bipartisan committee. And it's created that way to eliminate one party from having more power. So that is the Republicans' argument. Well, they say, look, it's gives the House Ethics Committee more power over this committee, but that's the way it should be, that this is a bipartisan committee. In some ways, their work has been redundant. The outside - this outside group cannot independently punish members. They can only make recommendations to the Ethics Committee to do that. It's just sort of the first step in an investigations process.
GREENE: What is the argument for this? I mean, the optics of this are not that great if you have lawmakers saying we want to weaken the independent body that investigates us.
DAVIS: Yes. It does not look good, particularly when you have Donald Trump, who had campaigned on this drain the swamp message and changing the way Washington works.
GREENE: This almost seems like it's protecting the swamp in a way.
DAVIS: (Laughter) Well, the OCE was created in 2008, and it came out of - the 2006 midterm elections was an era in which then minority leader who became Speaker Nancy Pelosi campaigned again on draining the swamp. She used the exact same language Donald Trump did.
GREENE: As Donald Trump.
DAVIS: And this office was created in response to a series of scandals that happened in Washington, if you remember the lobbyist Jack Abramoff who received a lot of attention then. And there was a number of lawmakers who were investigated in - with their relations to him and to other bribery scandals. And there was just this era where the public was really frustrated with Washington.
And then President Obama and House - then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped pass this law which created the OCE, which was to say to the public, you know, it wasn't that the Ethics Committee inside Congress wasn't working, but sometimes the problem when you have equally divided bipartisan committees is there's almost a truce. Nobody wants to be the party that actually turns on the other. So the House Ethics Committee, the criticism against it was that it was just sort of feckless and maybe an outside group was needed to sort of give it a nudge to make sure it did these investigations.
GREENE: OK, so it doesn't look good in some ways to get rid of this independent body. What is the argument for getting rid of it? I mean, it sounds like this congressman who proposed it is saying that it would be more transparent if they get rid of this body. How would that work?
DAVIS: Yeah, and that was Goodlatte's argument, and a lot of the Republicans that supported this had been subject to investigations by the OCE and were very frustrated by that process. One of their points is that, you know, in any other proceeding, if you are accused of something, you have a right to challenge your accuser. And if you - but if someone can anonymously file complaints against you, that forces you to hire counsel, to spend money, to defend yourself but you don't even know who's making the accusation against you.
And we should say that overt - since 2008, when this was created, there have been Democrats that have also criticized this process who have said it is not fair that people can accuse us of wrongdoing, and we don't have the same due process rights we would have in other courts or other proceedings.
GREENE: This seemed to catch even Speaker of the House Paul Ryan by surprise. I mean, what does that suggest about how much control he has over his caucus heading into this new Congress?
DAVIS: That's right. He, the speaker, I'm told, in this closed-door meeting advised against it, said it's never good for the House or for Congress to make changes to this kind of process without bipartisan buy-in. If you're going to say the Ethics Committee - the ethics process in Congress is bipartisan...
GREENE: We should talk about it.
DAVIS: We should talk about it, and you should bring in at least members of the Ethics Committee to have a say in that. They overrode him. You know, a fair number of Republicans voted against doing this, but a majority of the majority, which is a phrase we hear a lot, decided to do it. This will get a full vote today on the House floor in Congress. It's a question of whether they have the votes for the rules package.
The House will also vote today to elect Paul Ryan, speaker of the new Congress. And of course he is expected to easily get that. Whether or not there is defections on the floor for either him or Nancy Pelosi, who also received some pushback from her members, remains to be seen.
GREENE: OK. And then your busy (laughter) - your busy year begins with the Republicans ready to repeal Obamacare and get their agenda going.
DAVIS: And actually get some work done.
GREENE: OK. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Sue, thanks.
DAVIS: Thank you.
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