Is the Office of Congressional Ethics Really Being “Gutted?” Trump’s Involvement

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You may have seen the Goodlatte amendment trending in news and social media in regards to the Office of Congressional Ethics. While, like many Americans, I could really use amending this conversation with a good cup of coffee, let’s take a look at what’s really going on with mainstream media, the Goodlatte amendment, and their reporting of this issue.

First, a primer: The Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent, nonpartisan office founded 8 years ago to review Members and staff of the House of Representatives and to serve as a receiving forum for complaints from members of the public. Coverage of this story in the media, claiming that Republicans are “gutting” the House of ethics regulation, has been leaving out that the OCE is not the only review for ethics within the House; there is also the House Committee on Ethics. If that sounds confusing, that’s partly what the Goodlatte amendment hopes to address. The Goodlatte amendment proposes, in part, to move the OCE under the umbrella of the House Committee of Ethics. According to Goodlatte, “An amendment I offered builds upon and strengthens the existing OCE by maintaining its primary area of focus – accepting and reviewing complaints from the public – while providing additional due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.” It also proposes to change the name from the Office of Congressional Ethics to the Office of Congressional Complaint Review (OCCR).

Are you surprised by the way the media is covering this event? News networks pretending to be neutral are stating that the Republicans are gutting the House of ethical review without going into what the Goodlatte amendment actually proposes, and worse, they link it to Trump – a conflation I’ll address in a moment. Let’s start by getting to the source of the proposed intention of this amendment. According to Goodlatte, “These provisions taken together ensure the rights of the accused are protected throughout the investigation and not subject to litigation by the media.” Considering this amendment will restrict media access, are we really surprised that mainstream media is throwing a fit at this story? Of course not, this impacts their ability to cover hearings that can be twisted into juicy scandals, which impacts their bottom line. It would be nice if the media acknowledged their bias here – that part of why they are lashing out against this move by House Republicans is because it affects them personally, and perhaps this is why we’re seeing the inflammatory “gutted” language across major headlines without delving further into the issue. Don’t get me wrong – I want transparency within the government, but let’s not pretend that mainstream media is perfectly transparent either, as evidenced by the way they are covering this story while refusing to disclose their bias. You can’t pretend to be a neutral news source when you cover a story in this fashion.

It’s not hard to disclose a bias: For example, right now my bias is that I’m trying to show the opposing point of view to what mainstream media would have you believe. There, that was simple, wasn’t it?

Worse yet is the media’s narrative to link this incident to Trump, proclaiming that his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” is now moot because of this amendment. This conflation is dangerous. Aside from the obvious, although pithy of me to say, fact that this is called the Goodlatte amendment and not the Trump amendment, American politics 101 is the separation of powers for checks and balances with the three branches of government: Legislative (which includes the Senate and House of Representatives), Judicial (the Supreme Court and all lower courts), and the Executive – which is President elect Donald Trump. This bill is being discussed in the House, or the legislative branch – conflating this with the executive branch is a misunderstanding of the most basic elements of American government, but one that the media will happily promote as it suits their narrative.

Within the last hour, Trump spoke up against this, stating on Twitter, “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it……..may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! ” (This quote comes from two separate tweets on Twitter.)

In one fell swoop, Trump has once again undermined a biased media narrative by showing that he didn’t even agree with the push for this amendment in the first place.

What about the amendment itself – is the Goodlatte amendment sound? On one hand, I support due process and the core belief in this country that people are innocent until proven guilty. I generally feel that media involvement in hearings, whether they be hearings of every day individuals or of members of the House, undermines an individual’s right to be innocent until proven guilty, especially when false or nefarious complaints can be submitted to the OCE in a direct attempt to undermine political competition by garnering media coverage. Privacy is an important individual right. At the same time, I’m a proponent of transparency and thus am always leery when the government tries to reduce visibility to anyone, and especially to the media which tends to function as an independent check on governmental power. However, when the media behaves like this, it makes it harder to advocate for them – hence why I wish they would simply disclose their bias instead of pretending to be neutral while pushing a narrative.

 

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