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Shawn Vestal: Cathy McMorris Rodgers supported effort to weaken congressional ethics office that determined she likely violated federal law

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., arrives in Trump Tower in New York Dec. 12, 2016. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., arrives in Trump Tower in New York Dec. 12, 2016. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)

She would’ve if she could’ve.

That seems to be the answer to the question: Did Cathy McMorris Rodgers actually vote to eliminate the ethics watchdog that gave her a big old bite in 2014?

Would’ve if she could’ve.

Demonstrating a stunning degree of ethical and political tone-deafness, the House GOP majority chose to make its first act of 2017 an effort to eliminate the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, and put the process under the control of the House Ethics Committee.

Which is comprised of lawmakers.

Who are the ones the OCE investigates.

In other words: House Republicans voted to eliminate the independent watchdog and give its investigative authority to House Republicans.

Supporters of the move said it was an effort to improve the process.

The way a fox improves a henhouse.

McMorris Rodgers chaired the closed-door meeting of the House Republican Conference on Monday, and thus did not cast a vote, said her spokeswoman, Molly Drenkard. She also led a meeting Tuesday morning where Republicans quickly dropped the proposal after receiving a chorus of criticism, including a Twitter chiding from Donald Trump.

Still, given the support in the GOP and the clear sense that they only backed off for strategic reasons, one suspects the subject isn’t closed. 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.

Later in the day, Drenkard said that McMorris Rodgers supports reforming the ethics process in the House, and shares the concerns that led some to push for the changes. However, she wants to see such changes emerge from a bipartisan, open process, Drenkard said.

In a statement, McMorris Rodgers said, “I support a process that is effective and transparent so it provides public accountability of Congress to the American people. Members of Congress must earn the trust of the American people every single day, and the ethics process should ensure our elected officials are held accountable to the people.”

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.

The OCE is a nonpartisan office charged with investigating complaints against House members and staffers. When warranted, it forwards its findings to the Ethics Committee for further investigation or action.

Weakening the former and strengthening the latter is simply not a credible way to drain any swamp. And there is perhaps no better example of why than the OCE’s Review No. 13-0906.

This was the case against McMorris Rodgers, based on complaints from a former staffer that she had used taxpayer resources for campaign purposes between 2010 and 2012. The complaints, which would violate House rules and federal law if true, alleged that she used taxpayer resources in her re-election campaign, used a campaign official to do government business, and used taxpayer resources in her campaign for a House leadership position.

The OCE concluded there was “substantial” reason to believe she had done all three. Supported by a 422-page public report, it recommended that the Ethics Committee look more deeply into the allegations.

Without explanation, the committee declined to do so. The complaint now lives in an unresolved limbo, perhaps forever, with a body that makes no public mention of the status of the complaints it is supposedly investigating. That limbo is the place that the House GOP tried to expand this week.

McMorris Rodgers has denied the allegations in the OCE report, which her attorney has called frivolous and based on the complaints of a disgruntled employee.

It’s a new day in Washington, D.C., with the GOP in charge of every branch of the tree. The House has been a low-stakes kabuki legislature for several years now, passing doomed bills as showpieces and campaign fodder, and the leadership has often been in conflict with the far-right Freedom Caucus. In that context McMorris Rodgers has walked a careful and circumspect line.

Going forward, though, these intramural scuffles and her place within them will take on a heightened relevance. And though this week’s kerfuffle will quickly fade, it will be worth remembering the line she took when asked if she would eliminate the office meant to ensure the integrity of the House of Representatives.

She would’ve if she could’ve.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.