When the public speaks, Congress still listens
Today was a good day for open government in the United States.
This morning, the U.S. House of Representatives was set to vote on rules for the 115th Congress that would have undermined the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the ethics watchdog created in 2009 in the wake of scandals. On Monday, Rep. Robert Goodlatte added an amendment to the rules package with no advance notice nor opportunity for debate. The House Republican Conference then voted for the amendment in secret, 119-74, with no advance public notice nor disclosure of the amendment for debate.
Despite the opposition of Sunlight and our allies, it appeared that one of the first actions of the 115th Congress was going to be to weaken independent oversight at a time when it’s more important than ever. The public knows about Members of Congress taking secret trips overseas funded by foreign governments because of OCE.
When we asked you to pick up the phone and call your Representative in Congress to ask about his or her vote on this issue, you did, filling out a “public whip count” to provide some accountability for who voted to weaken Congress’ ethics watchdog.
Picking up the phone, however, led to something unexpected: after a public outcry, House Republicans backed down on gutting the independent ethics office. The public’s role is not the full story, however: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was involved in calling an emergency meeting this morning, which led both to removing the amendment by Rep. Goodlatte from the rules package and introducing a measure suggesting draft changes to OCE that would be delivered by the August recess that was accepted by acclamation.
Thank you to each and every one of you who spoke up and called Congress today. Journalist Robert Costa reported that most Members told him a blizzard of angry constituent calls was the most important factor in getting the House to sideline the amendment.
As New America fellow Lee Drutman (and former Sunlighter) highlighted, the preservation of OCE is a promising sign. Effective reporting that reminds politicians that the public still cares about ethics standards and credible institutions is a wonderful start to 2017.
Special thanks go to Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress (and former Sunlighter) who raised alarm bells about the efforts to weaken OCE last night, the subsequent secret vote on the rules, and worked with Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout to build the public whip count.
While it’s important to celebrate a victory today, however, it does not mean that anyone should rest on these laurels. Keep in mind that the President-Elect and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy objected only to the timing of this effort to weaken what Trump termed an “unfair” institution, not its intent.
Today’s outcome is likely to be followed with another “reform” effort that could reduce the independence or authority of OCE later this year, perhaps as early as April. While OCE has been preserved for now, we’re continuing our Public Whip Count on whether Members of Congress voted to weaken OCE.
Your voice in Washington mattered today, however, demonstrating that the public does care about ethics in Congress if watchdogs and media can work together to inform and activate people to be civically involved. Please stay engaged.