The Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol engaged in an exercise in futility Monday, when it recommended that the House Ethics Committee investigate four Republican lawmakers for defying the committee’s subpoenas—including the bumbling apologist for Donald Trump’s abuses of power who is expected to become the next speaker of the House, and the incendiary right-wing extremist who is set to chair the House Judiciary Committee. The sad fact is that nothing is likely to come of the recommendation because, in short order, Republican foxes will be guarding the henhouse.
There is no question that the four members in question—House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), incoming Judiciary Committee chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, and Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona—should face sanctions for their refusals to cooperate with the January 6 inquiry. McCarthy and Jordan had relevant information about their communications with Trump on January 6, 2021: the day that the former president’s supporters stormed the Capitol in what has been identified as a coup attempt. Perry was allegedly engaged in the scheming to put a Trump ally in charge of the Department of Justice. Biggs participated in meetings where strategies for overturning the legitimate results of the 2020 election were discussed.
But when control of the House shifts to the Republicans in January, the Ethics Committee—which rarely lives up to its name—will be stacked against any sort of accountability. Once McCarthy successfully wrangles the votes he needs to become the next speaker of the House, he will appoint the five Republican members of the Ethics Committee. One of those GOP members will then chair the body.
The Republicans will serve with five Democratic members appointed by newly-selected House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, (D-N.Y.). The Democratic appointees will, in all likelihood, be inclined to act upon the recommendations of the January 6 committee. But on a 10-member committee that is evenly divided along partisan lines, nothing of consequence will be accomplished unless Democrats break the partisan deadlock. For this to occur, McCarthy would have to appoint at least one Republican who would go along with Democratic efforts to investigate Republicans—including himself. And anyone who knows anything about McCarthy will tell you that’s not going to happen.
If there is one thing that’s been a constant in Kevin McCarthy’s career, it is his instinct for political self-preservation. The Californian has never put the common good, let alone ethical standards, ahead of his own political advancement. And he’s not going to start now, when his efforts to secure the speakership involve negotiations with the most extreme members of his caucus, including allies of Jordan, Perry, and Briggs.
As any of the January 6 committee’s recommendations regarding policy shifts that are necessary to avoid future assaults on democracy, its recommendations for actions by the Ethics Committee will be upended by the fact that the Congress is not going to function as a proper legislative body when Republicans take charge at the beginning of January. Though their majority is slim and their caucus is divided along ideological lines, Republicans are united in their commitment to play politics with every issue that arises.
Don’t look for any effort to clean up the party’s image by embracing an ethics inquiry that might actually hold Republicans to account. Instead, the party will try to use the oversight powers of Congress to attack President Biden and his family, the Biden administration, and the Democrats who previously controlled the House. The abuses by the new Republican-controlled House will make those of the last Republican-controlled House look like exercises in statesmanship. Imagine the House Benghazi Committee hearings on steroids, and you’ve got a good picture of where things are headed.
Instead of referring to the charges against McCarthy, Jordan, Briggs, and Perry—along with charges against outgoing House member Mo Brooks, (R-Ala.)—to the Ethics Committee, as part of a report issued days before control of Congress will shift to the GOP, the January 6 committee should have forwarded its complaints immediately after McCarthy and his compatriots refused to cooperate. That would have allowed an ethics committee chaired by a Democrat to take up the issue. It also would have given more time for an inquiry.
Even before the January 6 committee was constituted, Democrats should have used their control of the House between 2019 to 2023 to improve ethics oversight by strengthening the Office of Congressional Ethics. The OCE was established in 2008 as an independent nonpartisan agency charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct by House members and staffers, and empowered to refer issues of concern to the House Ethics Committee.
In a major 2020 report, the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington recommended giving the OCE “subpoena power and adequate resources to investigate ethics violations,” including the authority to “conduct depositions, compel member and witness participation, and grant the office other statutory tools to obtain documentary and physical evidence of ethical violations.” CREW also recommended that the OCE be provided with sufficient staff and financial resources to take on an expanded oversight role. The group suggested, “Ethics committees may always be at least somewhat biased towards inaction because they are the internal policing mechanism for their chambers, and thus the subjects of their investigations are their colleagues and friends,” but “allowing the independent ethics offices to note specifically egregious ethical violations would free the committees to issue more powerful rebukes, and it would mitigate any potential bias towards inaction that is inherent in the structure of internal policing.”
Implementation of that proposal, along with a plan to allow the OCE to recommend changes in House Ethics rules, would have given the January 6 committee more options. Without those options, the committee’s recommendations for investigation and action, while entirely appropriate, ring hollow.