Vote makes Congressional records less open

It was a tweet by then-President-elect Donald Trump that led House Republicans to retreat on a plan they had early this month to gut an independent Congressional ethics board.

However, the subsequent passage of updated rules under which the 115th Congress will operate still includes language that allows them to keep their records hidden from those who investigate wrongdoing, making it easier for members of Congress to slip out of sticky situations.

Language quietly slipped into House Resolution 5 spelling out Congress’ standing rules makes records held by specific members of Congress the property of the Congress member — not property of Congress as a whole. In effect, the change makes it much more difficult for members of the public or investigators to obtain or scrutinize documents having to do with the operations of a lawmaker’s office, even though those offices, presumably, are run with taxpayer money.

Specifically, here is how the resolution reads: “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 the individual Member, Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner and such Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner has control over such records.”

It passed Jan. 3 by a vote of 234 to 193.

On first glance, the rule change may seem subtle and unimportant. Perhaps that’s why it has taken so long for anyone to draw attention to it. But as members of the media inside the beltway more closely examine the language and receive feedback from good government activists, it’s becoming more troubling because it appears to throw extra obstacles in the way of ethics or criminal investigators working to ensure taxpayer funds are being spent properly.

For instance, if a lawmaker comes under investigation for a crime where investigators subpoena records from his or her office, it’s possible now that the congressman can withhold the records, maintaining these records are his property, not the property of Congress.

That, of course, would apply to any member of Congress, not just the member of a particular political party.

The rules package, which contained the language about possession of congressional records, passed, however, along party lines. Among local representation, Democrat Tim Ryan of Howland voted no. Republicans David Joyce of Russell Township, who represents parts of northern Trumbull County, and Bill Johnson, who represents parts of Mahoning County and south, each voted yes.

One day earlier, Donald Trump sent a tweet criticizing another move by Republicans in the newly convened House for making another move targeted at ethics investigations.

“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 No. 1 act and priority,” Trump tweeted at the time. It was about three weeks before he took the oath of office.

Trump’s tweet backed criticisms also coming from Democrats about the secret move that would have neutered the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. That office had been created in 2008 after congressional corruption cases came to light. The new plan aimed to take away the neutral investigations and placed ethics probes, instead, under the control of the lawmakers themselves.

Golly, what could possibly be wrong with that scenario?

Criticism of the measure gained quick attention of the press, spread briskly on social media and collected laughs in late-night talk show monologues.

GOP lawmakers responded with a quick turnaround and voted the next morning to undo the change, acknowledging their mistake.

It’s decisions like this, that come based on reaction from the president, the public and the opposing political party, that present good examples of why balance in government is so important and a two-party system is so crucial.

Anytime government is left to police itself, without a balance of power, we run the risk of creating barriers to logical checks and balances.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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