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House Republicans Act In Secret To Weaken Ethics Panel

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Republicans in the House of Representatives held a secret vote last night and decided to weaken ethics oversight for the House. They voted to strip the Office of Congressional Ethics of its independence. The full House is set to vote later today to approve the new rules. For reaction, we've called Richard Painter. He was chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush. Mr. Painter has been a frequent guest on our show expressing concerns about President-elect Donald Trump's potential conflicts of interest. Mr. Painter, welcome back to the show.

RICHARD PAINTER: Well, thank you very much.

MARTIN: This could seem to some like an obscure bureaucratic move, what House Republicans did, just a change on an org chart. Can you explain the significance here?

PAINTER: Well, it's a lot more than a bureaucratic move. The Office of Congressional Ethics was set up to be independent of the members of the House of Representatives, whereas the House Ethics Committee is staffed by, controlled by, the members of the House with the majority votes, of course, being with the majority party. So when they do this, they are undermining the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics by putting it under the thumb of the House Ethics Committee. I mean, this is putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop with American taxpayers being the chickens. This is not the way they ought to be doing it in Washington. We need independent oversight of the ethics of Congress.

MARTIN: So just to take a step back, so this - the independent nature of this panel was established around 2008. These new rule changes would mean the panel would move under the auspices of the House Ethics Committee, so, as you say, would be members of the House policing their own ethics behavior to some degree.

PAINTER: Well, exactly. You would have no independent investigations. You'd have no ability of the House Ethics Committee to stand up to the members of the House. They'd, in effect, be policing themselves, which they don't do from either party. This is not a partisan issue. We need independent oversight of ethics in Congress. And they put it in in 2008...

MARTIN: Although the...

PAINTER: And now they want to destroy it.

MARTIN: The House Ethics Committee, which is now going to be in charge of overseeing this panel, does have both Democrats and Republicans on it, so doesn't that create some kind of accountability?

PAINTER: That really just creates a partisan food fight. That's not ethics supervision. That's just using ethics as a partisan weapon. And that's what we get from Congress and these committees. We have that House Oversight Committee that, when it was controlled by Democrats, gave the Bush White House a very hard time. But then when things switched, the Republicans there wanted to do nothing but go after Hillary Clinton. I mean, that's not oversight. That's just politics. And then they get the FBI involved and so forth.

We've been through all that. We need independent oversight of the ethics in Congress, and they're not - they're taking it away. They put it in in 2008, and now they want to take it away. And if that's their attitude, I think the American people are going to have to think twice about who they're sending to Congress.

MARTIN: What about the claim that some Republicans say that with the way it was, with this Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent panel, this allowed people to make anonymous ethics complaints that were difficult for House members to defend themselves against. Do they have a point there?

PAINTER: Well, I - we have this, the executive branch, inspectors general and the agencies that were independent of the political appointees in the agencies. We have the Office of Public Integrity in the Justice Department. We have the Office of Government Ethics. Although they don't investigate complaints. They give guidance on ethics. But we have an independent apparatus in the executive branch. I don't see why Congress shouldn't play by the same rules. And I've disagreed sometimes with investigations of the House Office of Congressional Ethics. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have it. And this is - that's just an excuse for taking away the oversight that these members of Congress badly need.

MARTIN: Richard Painter served President George W. Bush as chief ethics lawyer. Thank you so much for your time on this.

PAINTER: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.