After abandoning plans to gut a congressional ethics committee last week, House Republicans passed a measure to restrict who can see the committee’s reports.
The day before the new legislative session, House Republicans voted in a closed-door meeting to bring the Office of Congressional Ethics under the House Ethics Committee, which House Republicans control.
Metro-east representatives offered a variety of responses about their votes. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, issued a statement criticizing the office. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, commented after his party abandoned the changes that he was glad it did so. And Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, declined to comment through a member of his staff.
After backing off the original plan, however, House Republicans passed a rules package with a provision that overhauls the committee’s transparency by sharply reducing who can view its investigations after they’re completed.
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Now, all documents produced in an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics will belong to the people it investigated.
“Records created, generated, or received by the congressional office of a Member, Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner in the performance of official duties are exclusively the personal property of (that person),” the provision now states.
A story by the Center for Responsive Politics, a research organization that tracks money in politics, outlined the importance of reclassifying the documents as it relates to the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination.
Mike Stern, who worked as senior counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1996 to 2004, explained the “act of production” privilege, “meaning that just producing the document would be incriminating in itself,” the story noted.
“That privilege doesn’t apply to government agencies or corporations,” according to the story. “But if a lawmaker is being investigated for misuse of taxpayer funds and law enforcement authorities subpoena her spending records, under this rule, she can assert the privilege to withhold them; they belong to her, not to Congress.”
“Congress should strengthen independent oversight and procedures, not use their control of Congress to weaken such ethics protections,” Ashley Balcerzak, the reporter for the Center, wrote in an email to the BND.
The House voted largely along party lines in the rules vote, which took place on Jan. 3, with 234 Republicans voting in favor of the package, and three Republicans who joined 190 Democrats in voting against it. Three members from each party did not vote.
Every Republican representative from Illinois voted in favor of the rules package, and all but one Democratic representative from Illinois voted against it. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago, did not vote.
It is unclear to what extent changing the ethics committee had on how representatives voted on their operating rules for the two year legislative session.
How they voted
The last four rules votes have been divided along party lines:
- 2015 Congress: yeas — 234 Republicans; nays — 168 Democrats and 4 Republicans; did not vote — 8; “present” — 1
- 2013 Congress: yeas — 228 Republicans; nays — 195 Democrats and 1 Republican; did not vote — 5
- 2011 Congress: yeas — 238 Republicans; nays — 191 Democrats; did not vote — 2
- 2009 Congress: yeas —242 Democrats; nays — 175 Republicans; did not vote —7