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caption: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane 
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Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane
Credit: Flickr Photo/Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)/

Washington Republicans split on move to neuter ethics watchdog

Washington state Republicans split over their party's move Monday night to weaken Congress's only independent ethics watchdog. House Republicans quickly abandoned the move in an emergency meeting the next morning after a firestorm of criticism.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane oversaw her party's secret vote on Monday, a federal holiday, to restrict the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics.

She chairs the Republican Party caucus, known as the House Republican Conference.

At the opening of the new Congress on Tuesday, as she nominated Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to be Speaker of the House, McMorris Rodgers described Republicans' priorities: "Policies that trust people, not the government, to make their own decisions and pursue their own dreams."

The night before, House Republicans had voted themselves more leeway to pursue their dreams without an independent watchdog sniffing around for corruption.

KUOW contacted Republican members of Congress individually to find out how they voted.

Nobody in the Washington delegation agreed to be interviewed, but their staff did email statements on their behalf.

Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn voted for the move. In an emailed statement, he said it would better safeguard due process rights for the subjects and witnesses of investigations. "In no way did it relax ethics standards or strip the OCE of its authority," Reichert said.

In fact, the proposal would have prevented the ethics office from speaking publicly or to law enforcement about its work without the approval of the very lawmakers it was created to watch over. The proposal would also have prevented the office from investigating anonymous tips.

Some of those lawmakers, including McMorris Rodgers, are under investigation by the ethics office. She is still the subject of an unfinished investigation that found "substantial reason to believe" she had misused Congressional resources to help her win reelection in 2012.

McMorris Rodgers' office said, as chair of the House Republican Conference, she did not vote at Monday night's meeting. She also chaired the meeting Tuesday morning that stripped the proposal from the package of rules the new Congress will operate under. Those were adopted on Tuesday.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler's office said the Republican from Battle Ground opposed the move to sap the ethics office's powers and independence.

Her statement said, "It sends entirely the wrong message if the first thing that new leadership does is to remove its own independent ethics watchdog."

Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside missed the vote: Bad weather delayed his flight from Washington state back to Washington, D.C.

Reichert said the party decided Tuesday morning that any changes to the House's ethics safeguards should be debated by Republicans and Democrats in an open process.

Proposed House GOP rules package, including restrictions on ethics office (pages 37-42)