What is the process for investigating or removing committee chairs?

Image Source: OCE

Image Source: OCE

By Casey Burgat

As your Twitter feed and/or news alerts have undoubtedly made you aware, trouble is afoot yet again at the House Committee on Intelligence.

The latest drama has ranking member Adam Schiff publicly accusing chairman Devin Nunes of editing the now (in)famous memo regarding alleged FBI surveillance abuses after the committee voted along party lines to send the memo to the White House for potential release. (Of course, Schiff’s allegation comes on top of the FBI’s rare public feud with the White House concerning the memo’s accuracy, but that’s a whole different story.)

Schiff’s allegations have raised questions about the process by which a chairman can be investigated, and potentially removed from his or her post due to violations of House rules or the Official Code of Conduct. Fortunately for those of us who care about these things, there is some great work detailing the often misunderstood House investigations process.

For example, this explainer from CBS politics reporter Karthryn Watson is a great resource. Also check out the fantastic Citizen’s Guide to the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Here are the basics:

  • The House Committee on Ethics’ jurisdiction allows for investigations of Members for violations of the Code of Conduct, but only if a complaint is submitted by another Member.
* The committee’s membership is divided evenly, with each party maintaining five seats
  • Most ethics investigations are actually conducted by the lesser-known Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).
* The OCE is made up of private, nonpartisan staff, typically with an expertise in ethics law. OCE staff are not congressional staff.  
* OCE accepts complaints from anyone, inside or outside of Congress
* OCE has six voting members and two alternates. In order for a preliminary review of a complaint to take place, two members must vote to proceed
* OCE investigations have time limits
* Preliminary reviews are limited to 30 days
* If a majority of members vote to proceed following the preliminary review, a second phase of investigation can last up to 45 days (with an option to extend for 14 additional days)
* After the second phase, OCE staff submit a report of findings to the voting members, who then vote on whether or not the findings should be referred to the House Committee on Ethics for ajudication. A majority vote is needed to refer the report to the committee.

Bottom line:

OCE investigations of Members or congressional employees ultimately end up in the House Committee on Ethics for adjudication. Even with a strong recommendation for further investigation from the OCE, the committee’s chair and ranking member must both recommend that the full committee impanel an investigation. And though the committee maintains subpoena power (unlike the OCE), it has no time limits on its investigations into alleged misconduct. Investigations often drag on for extended periods of time, or are dropped or forgotten.

In the rare instance the committee finds clear and convincing evidence of a Member violating House rules or breaching the Code of Conduct, a sanction hearing is held to recommend appropriate punishment, which may include censure, loss of his or her committee seat, and even expulsion.

Bottom, bottom line:

Though I fully expect the OCE to receive numerous of complaints from a range of parties concerning Chairman Nunes’ handling of the FBI surveillance memo, it is extremely unlikely that an official ethics investigation will recommend removing Nunes from his chairmanship.