Congressman Keith Rothfus

Representing the 12th District of Pennsylvania

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Republicans back down on plan to gut ethics office

Jan 3, 2017
In The News

Republicans responded to public backlash by reversing a decision that would have weakened oversight of congressional ethics but retained another controversial provision of a rules package they pushed through Tuesday.

The U-turn came as the 115th Congress convened for the first time amid swearing-in ceremonies and family celebrations for new members.

The rules that survived include a plan to fine members who photograph, record or live-stream activities on the House floor. House rules already prohibited photographing or recording there except by majority-controlled cameras that feed C-SPAN, but there were no enforcement provisions.

The rule that didn’t survive would have required the independent Office of Congressional Ethics to report to the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers themselves. The office was established in 2008 after a series of corruption scandals.

The crackdown on recording comes after Democrats in June staged and then live-streamed a sit-in on the House floor to protest Republican inaction on gun control after a mass shooting at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub. Democrats began live-streaming the protest after Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan cut off the C-SPAN feed.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, a participant in the sit-in, said Tuesday that the rule change was designed to muzzle dissent.

“Most members, we do obey the rules, and we’ve never looked to disrupt the floor,” Mr. Doyle said. “The only reason we did what we did on the sit-in was because we couldn’t get a vote on something as basic as” expanded background checks for gun purchasers.

Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Republicans are imposing the fine — $500 for a first violation and $2,500 for subsequent violations — “to shut us down, to shut us out and to shut us up.”

U.S. Reps. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, and Mike Kelly, R-Butler, said there are plenty of other ways for members to have their views heard without breaking House rules. Members can make floor speeches, hold news conferences or have rallies on the Capitol steps, they suggested.

“Those [recording] rules were violated last year and they interfered with the rights of other members,” Mr. Rothfus said.

“I went to the floor to give a speech — not knowing there was a protest going on — and when I walked onto the House floor I was prevented from going to the lectern,” he said. “Members are supposed to conduct themselves in a manner of decorum on the House floor. We need to have rules that can be enforced so members will respect each other.”

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who led the June protest, said the new sanctions won’t stop him.

“I’m not afraid of a fine. I’ve been fined before. During the ’60s, I was arrested and jailed 40 times, beaten, left bloody and unconscious on the march from Selma to Montgomery,” said Mr. Lewis, one of the most prominent voices in the civil rights movement. “We have a right to dissent. We have a right to protest for what is right regardless of the rule or no rule. We cannot and will not be silenced.”

Overnight Monday and into Tuesday, Republicans had faced public backlash over the surprise rule concerning the Office of Congressional Ethics that the GOP rank-and-file had agreed to during a closed-door meeting. The decision to water down ethics enforcement came over the objection of Mr. Ryan, R-Wis., who was re-elected speaker Tuesday.

After a night of outrage expressed by constituents, Democratic lawmakers, watchdog groups and others, Republicans dropped the plan Tuesday afternoon.

Monday night, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., had convinced the majority of fellow Republican members that the office should report to the House Ethics Committee. Under his proposal, accusations of criminal acts could not be referred to law enforcement without the Ethics Committee’s consent.

Even President-elect Donald Trump had weighed in, tweeting his displeasure early Tuesday. “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it is, their number one priority” he wrote.

Although Republicans withdrew the rule, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would remain vigilant.

“For the moment they backed off,” she said in a speech on the House floor.

Western Pennsylvania Republicans who attended Monday night’s closed-door session were divided on the provision.

Mr. Kelly supported it because, he said, members can police themselves through the House Ethics Committee, which comprises an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

“You’re allowed a jury of your peers and I don’t know why anybody would doubt that that could take place. The Ethics Committee that’s in place has functioned well” and hasn’t been shy about censuring members.

He said the existing system allows anonymous accusers to ruin the reputation of members by filing frivolous complaints because the Office of Congressional Ethics announces when it has begun an investigation. Those announcements, he said, get more attention than subsequent ones revealing findings of no wrongdoing.

“It’s a horrible system. An outside group can lodge a complaint and once OCE starts investigating they’ll say, ‘So-and-so is under investigation.’ Do you know the harm that does to somebody?” Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Rothfus said he has similar concerns, but he voted against the Goodlatte measure because he prefers to have bipartisan agreement on ethics changes. He said he knows Democrats are equally concerned about the Office of Congressional Ethics and wants them to have a chance to support reforms. Chamber rules — which change every two years — are often voted on down party lines.

“The majority sets the rules,” he said. “But this is an issue that there have been bipartisan concerns about, and I think there should be a bipartisan resolution to it.”

In a tweet, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said he also voted against the Goodlatte proposal, although he believes the Office of Congressional Ethics is “broken, secretive, lacking due process and used for political purposes.”

Democrats lambasted the plan to neuter the ethics office.

“Congress must hold itself to the highest standards of conduct. Instead, the House Republican Conference has acted to weaken ethics and silence would-be whistleblowers,” Ms. Pelosi said.