House GOP Reverses on Ethics Change After Trump Criticismby and
Trump says ethics change shouldn’t be GOP’s ‘number one act’
House to vote later Tuesday to approve broader rules package
House Republicans dropped their bid to weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics after President-elect Donald Trump blasted the move as counter to his call to "drain the swamp" of corruption in Washington.
The amendment was stripped from a rules package by voice vote, three lawmakers said, in a last-minute meeting called Tuesday as criticism mounted. The controversy over the office that investigates lawmakers’ alleged misconduct was starting to overshadow the opening of the 115th Congress, normally a day of glad-handing as lawmakers bring family members to the floor to join the festivities.
"We have got just a tremendous number of calls to our office here and district offices concerned about this," said Representative Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican.
The House GOP voted behind closed doors Monday night to make the independent office “subject to oversight” by the House Ethics Committee and significantly restrict its powers. The three lawmakers who confirmed the amendment was dropped were Mo Brooks of Alabama, Darrell Issa of California and Bill Flores of Texas.
“People could have concerns” after Trump criticized the GOP’s move, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California told reporters before the meeting.
“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority,” Trump wrote on Twitter Tuesday morning. “Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!’ He closed his tweet with “#DTS,” a reference to his campaign promise to “drain the swamp."
The change was to be part of a broader House rules package that the House plans to approve Tuesday as members open the 115th Congress.
The reversal doesn’t mean the effort to change the ethics office is dead. Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said leadership promised a bipartisan solution by August to resolve some lawmakers’ concerns about the ethics office. "I think people just did not want this story on opening day," he said.
Monday night’s vote on the amendment, proposed by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, had come amid broader calls from Trump for steps to fight corruption in Washington, including term limits on lawmakers and restrictions on lobbyists.
“Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."
Earlier Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan defended the change in a statement that insisted the ethics office would still “operate independently.”
“The evenly divided House Ethics Committee will now have oversight of the complaints office,” said Ryan of Wisconsin. He said the House panel would exercise that oversight only to "ensure the office is properly following its rules and laws," and said he instructed the House committee not to "interfere with the office’s investigations or prevent it from doing its job."
‘Abuse’ of Process
Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to the president-elect, said earlier Tuesday she hadn’t discussed the vote with Trump, who used the anti-corruption slogan on the campaign trail yet has been silent so far on the House measure. But she said it could be compatible with his rhetoric.
"One thing they’re trying to curb is the abuse of the process," Conway said on MSNBC, adding that much depends on the new ethics office that will be created. She said that constituents’ concerns could still be addressed.
The vote prompted protests from government watchdog groups, including those who had pushed for creation of the OCE in 2008. Those groups had said at the time that the Ethics Committee wasn’t diligent enough in policing and punishing member wrongdoing on its own.
Project on Government Oversight Executive Director Danielle Brian condemned the change in a statement that said, "Ethics watchdogs like OCE need to be strengthened and expanded -- not taken out back and shot in the middle of the night.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and frequent Trump critic, said on Fox News Radio he stands "with Trump. I mean, it’s the dumbest frickin’ thing I’ve ever heard." He added, "This is not the message the House needs to send."
The idea behind the OCE was that an independent office could provide preliminary, independent reviews of ethics accusations against members of Congress and make recommendations about whether further investigation by the Ethics Committee was necessary.
"OCE is one of the outstanding ethics accomplishments of the House of Representatives, and it has played a critical role in seeing that the congressional ethics process is no longer viewed as merely a means to sweep problems under the rug," said Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, the chairman and vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in a joint statement. "If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining OCE, it is setting itself up to be dogged by scandals and ethics issues for years and is returning the House to dark days when ethics violations were rampant and far too often tolerated."
But the office has its detractors, including lawmakers and staffers on both sides of the aisle who claimed they have been unfairly treated. And there have been public turf wars with the Ethics Committee itself.
"There’s been numerous examples, and we heard some of them in there today, of members who have falsely been accused by this group who had to spend a fortune to have their good name restored," said Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky, who said he supported the measure. "I think there has been an abuse."
Some House Republicans, including Representative Dennis Ross of Florida, said there had been some concerns raised during the closed-door meeting Monday night of the optics of placing new limitations on a government watchdog days before Trump takes office. But he said the majority of the Republicans felt it was time to fix problems with the OCE.
Ryan and McCarthy were among those who argued against the amendment, according to a lawmaker in the room who spoke on condition of anonymity. Ryan’s statement didn’t disclose his position during the private debate.
On Tuesday morning, McCarthy confirmed on MSNBC he had opposed the approval of the amendment but said he would vote for the rules package that contained it.
McCarthy told reporters later Tuesday he agreed with Trump’s tweet. Trump made "the same argument I made in conference," McCarthy told reporters.
He said on MSNBC the changes had earlier had bipartisan support to make investigations more fair.
"One thing we firmly believe in America is due process," he added. "People have a right to defend themselves if they’re being accused of something."
In a statement, Goodlatte described his amendment as one that would "build" on the OCE’s strengths, while also improving upon "the due-process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify."
"The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work," he said.
Other changes would include requiring that any matter potentially involving a violation of criminal law be referred to the Ethics Committee. The OCE also would be barred from considering anonymous complaints, and its jurisdiction would be limited to the last three Congresses.