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How Republicans are overhauling the Congressional Ethics Office

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: House Republicans are already making some big changes in Congress, including an overhaul of the Congressional Ethics Office. That's an independent, nonpartisan watchdog separate from the House Ethics Committee. Former Democratic Congressman David Skaggs was co-chair of the Ethics Office until a couple of years ago. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAVID SKAGGS: Thank you very much - good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Before we get to the changes that Republicans have made, talk about why this office exists in the first place. It was created in 2008 after a string of scandals in Congress. What kind of role has it served since then?

SKAGGS: Yeah. This was really the brainchild of Nancy Pelosi as she was speaker back a little late aughts. And it was the result of, really, a series of pretty significant scandals back in those days that the internal House Ethics Committee didn't go after with the kind of determination and rigor that most people thought was appropriate. So Nancy created, with the vote of the House, the Office of Congressional Ethics. The role of that office has been able to be a kind of preliminary review entity looking at charges that may be brought against members or staff, determining those that have some substance and, in those cases, referring them on to the internal House Ethics Committee for their consideration.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about these changes because House Republicans have not entirely ended OCE, but they have changed how the office will work, making it harder to hire new staff, making it impossible to replace people who leave in the next couple of years, also imposing term limits on members of the board. What impact do you expect this package of changes to have?

SKAGGS: Well, if they are implemented by the terms that are included in the rules package that was adopted yesterday in the House, they will be terribly destructive of the ability of OCE to do its job. One has to assume that that was the intention.

SHAPIRO: Well, then why not just do that? I mean, if they wanted to eliminate it, why not eliminate it?

SKAGGS: Well, I think that might be a little more brash. This is all sort of in the weeds of inside baseball in the House. And it takes someone to interpret the significance in order for people to understand how destructive it can be.

SHAPIRO: Taken as a package, if all of these new rules are implemented as written, can OCE continue to do its job?

SKAGGS: It will be hobbled. So if the current staff are maintained, they will have some capacity to do investigations and to bring matters to the board for its consideration. There will still be a board, although the membership of the board may be drawn down significantly, at least until there are new members selected by the two leaders. So for the short term anyway, yeah, it can struggle along and do some work, but it can't do all that it has been used to doing.

SHAPIRO: This is not the first time that Republicans have targeted the Ethics Office. In 2017, they voted to strip its independence and undermine its power. But then Donald Trump tweeted his disappointment, and Republicans reversed themselves. So why do you think this time was different?

SKAGGS: All times are different, I guess. Aren't they?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SKAGGS: We were astounded when that happened in 2017 but appreciated help wherever it came from. I think there is a emboldened sense - likely derived from the most, if you will, anti-government faction within the Republican conference - that just simply doesn't like the fact that their behavior is to be examined, especially by people outside the institution. That was always a difficult aspect of creating OCE. While the Constitution gives final authority, as it should, to the body itself, to the House, to deal with these matters, OCE doesn't infringe on that power. But it's perceived as coming close, and I think that's another reason for some hostility.

SHAPIRO: Having devoted a significant chunk of your career to this office, how do you feel seeing this all play out right now?

SKAGGS: Oh, I'm angry. I'm hurt. I'm offended. I'm - you know, I devoted a lot of time and energy to the standing up of OCE with my good friend Porter Goss. We wanted to make sure it was true to the purposes that the rules created it to serve. It has been nonpartisan. It has been one of the few places in Washington where you could go and be pretty sure that it didn't matter whether you were a Republican or a Democrat. So it is a shame that that important island of nonpartisan effectiveness might be so severely compromised.

SHAPIRO: David Skaggs, former Colorado congressman and former co-chair of the Office of Congressional Ethics. It's been good talking with you. Thank you.

SKAGGS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "FOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
William Troop