The beginning of the 115th Congress (running from January 3, 2017 to January 3, 2019) seems like a lifetime ago, but we in Washington State Congressional District 5 would do well to remember it.
Right at the opening of the 115th Congress, McMorris Rodgers, as Chair of the House Republican Congress, presided over a closed door meeting in which the first act was an attempt to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) and put its function under the control of the House Ethics Committee. The key concept here is that the OCE is independent of House leadership, while the House Ethics Committee is directly responsive to the majority party.
Elimination of the independent, non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics at the opening of the 115th Congress was a blatant attempt to avoid scrutiny. It is essentially the House Republicans saying, “We want to control whether or not any ethics investigation of our members moves forward. We’re obviously so ethical we will assume responsibility for policing ourselves.”
What were they thinking?
McMorris Rodgers personally has reason to wish the independent Office of Congressional Ethics didn’t exist. Shawn Vestal wrote a scathing article in the Spokesman on McMorris Rodgers’ involvement in January 2017 in the dust-up after the Republican effort to disband the OCE:
She has a history with the Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee. The former produced a stinging report in 2014 that McMorris Rodgers had apparently broken House rules and federal law by using taxpayer resources in election campaigns, and it recommended the Ethics Committee delve into the matter further.
The committee declined, in utter silence.
Vestal adds: “McMorris Rodgers told a reporter for Cox Media that she would have voted for the proposal had it been brought to the House for a vote.”
I was reminded of ethics referral yesterday when I was researching the Members Representational Allowance. Taxpayer money used to cover House duties must be kept separate from campaign money (and also cannot be used for personal expenses). The allegations against McMorris Rodgers were referred from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (the office she wanted to eliminate) to the House Ethics Committee with the following words, “...there is substantial reason to believe that Representative McMorris Rodgers used congressional funds, staff, and office space for campaign activities.” A specific allegation is that she used taxpayer dollars in her campaign in 2012 to become the Chair of the House Republican Conference, a position she assumed on January 3, 2013. Todd Winer, McMorris Rodgers former communications director (later the same for Raúl Labrador) is one of the sources. Part of his complaint can be read here in Roll Call. In it he adds that he was not the origin of the original complaint.
On December 23, 2013, the Office of Congressional Ethics transmitted its referral of the matter to the House Ethics Committee for further investigation and review. By that time it was clear the House would remain under the control of a Republican majority. Three months later in early 2014 several articles appeared confirming the referral would languish in House Ethics Committee. The issue disappeared from the news until McMorris Rodgers was floated as a contender for a cabinet position heading the Department of the Interior after the Trump election: Read and listen to “Trump’s likely Interior pick from Spokane still under ethics probe” from KUOW on December 13.
Perhaps that article was fresh in her mind when less than a month later she chaired the meeting that tried to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics entirely. Has she been in Washington, D.C. so long she thought no one was paying attention? If the allegations from the OCE referral have no merit why were they not investigated and dispensed with by the House Ethics Committee in 2014 when they received the referral? What are they afraid of?
When McMorris Rodgers offers her slightly nervous toothy smile along with her tired talking points I see a conniving politician who has too long been in Washington. Judging by the article that appeared in Politico on Monday entitled, “The one woman in Republican leadership is under siege” I’m not alone.
Keep to the high ground,