U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who heads the House Judiciary Committee, led a surprise effort this week to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), giving no advance notice about the proposed changes and allowing no debate on his measure before putting it up for a secret-ballot vote. The OCE was created in 2008 following corruption scandals resulting in prison sentences for three congressmen.
But a day after his measure's initial passage, Goodlatte withdrew the rule changes amid public outcry, with lawmakers reporting their offices were swamped with calls from constituents opposed to the move. Even President-elect Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter by questioning congressional priorities, though he also called the OCE "unfair." While the OCE does not issue sanctions, it does produce reports based on investigations conducted by staff attorneys.
Observers noted that the proposed changes at the OCE, which would have stripped it of power and independence, came as Republicans control both houses of Congress and as a GOP businessman with numerous potential conflicts of interest will soon be inaugurated as president.
But Goodlatte recently faced some conflict of interest questions of his own.
This past fall, Goodlatte easily won re-election in Virginia's solidly Republican 6th Congressional District, an office he's held since 1993. During the race, Democratic challenger Kai Degner, a former city council member and mayor of Harrisonburg, pointed out that the Goodlatte family is heavily invested in a company that has an ownership interest in the proposed $3.2 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry natural gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia. The project is opposed by environmentalists as well as by property owners along the route who argue that a private company should not have the right to use eminent domain to gain access to their land.
Goodlatte's wife, attorney Maryellen Goodlatte, sits on the board of directors of RGC Resources, a subsidiary of which is a partner in the Mountain Valley Pipeline and holds about a $32 million stake in the project. In his latest personal financial disclosure filing, Goodlatte reported that his wife owns between $250,000 and $500,000 in the company's stock.
Goodlatte's campaign defended the congressman from the conflict-of-interest charges by emphasizing that the stock is owned by his wife and by noting that she served on the company's board before the pipeline was proposed. It also pointed out that Congress does not oversee the permitting process for pipelines or eminent domain decisions for pipeline routes. In addition, the proposed route for the pipeline does not directly pass through Virginia's 6th District.
Degner responded by noting that married couples share investment benefits and that the Federal Elections Commission asks for details on a spouse's activities because they are in fact relevant. He also noted that members of Congress do not completely lack influence over pipelines, as evidenced by Goodlatte's call for public meetings with FERC about the project.
Martin Cohen, an associate professor of political science at James Madison University, told the News Leader of Staunton, Virginia, that he thought Goodlatte's conflict of interest regarding the pipeline was potentially significant but that he was not surprised by it.
"I'm sure Congressman Goodlatte isn't the only one," Cohen said, "not that that makes it less bothersome to the public or dangerous for our democracy."
Congressional Republicans have left open the possibility of revisiting rollbacks to OCE powers at a later date.