"This must be stopped": Kevin McCarthy's first move is to "gut" congressional ethics watchdog

McCarthy tries to woo far-right critics by limiting nonpartisan watchdog while empowering the GOP-led House panel

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published January 3, 2023 1:27PM (EST)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Getty Images)

As a new session of Congress begins Tuesday, Republicans have already unveiled plans to change how Capitol ethics complaints can be independently investigated. One measure tucked into House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy's, R-Calif., proposed House Rules package would impose limits on the non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics.

The proposal comes as the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) — which independently vets and refers misconduct allegations to the House Ethics Committee — faces calls to investigate Congress members who may have participated Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The GOP's rule would muzzle the OCE's staffing and investigative authority, treating the office as a standing House Committee. The rule also directs the House Ethics Committee to begin accepting complaints from the public directly, potentially offering lawmakers an end-run around the OCE.  

Ethics advocates decried the proposal on social media early in the week. 

"It's bad enough that the GOP is going to seat (GOP Representative-elect George) Santos," tweeted Senior Brookings Fellow Norm Eisen. "But at the same time they're also going to move a rules package that will insulate him from a major avenue of ethics oversight!"

While the OCE's eight-member board is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, McCarthy's proposal would impose a term-limit cap that would immediately force out three Democrats. The OCE would only have 30 days to fill those seats — a difficult deadline for federal appointments with traditionally lengthy vetting requirements, made harder by a rule requiring four OCE board members to approve the new appointee. 

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Public Citizen Executive Vice President Lisa Gilbert said the GOP's rules package "guts the Office of Congressional Ethics." 

"This must be stopped," she tweeted Monday. 

As previously reported by The Wall Street Journal, House Republicans last attempted to restrict the OCE in 2017. The effort to dismantle the OCE was abandoned following bipartisan backlash — a backlash that McCarthy himself joined.

But in December 2022, McCarthy ignored a subpoena from the Jan. 6 select committee, leaving him vulnerable at the time for referral to the House Ethics Committee. Now he's seeking House Speakership. His bid faces its loudest in-party opposition from the sitting members of Congress whose actions during the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol have since spurred public calls for an OCE investigation -- and who may stand to benefit from a toothless watchdog in a half-empty office.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at @raehodge@newsie.social. 


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