After Backlash, Including From Trump, House GOP Drops Weakening Of Ethics Office

Jan 3, 2017
Originally published on January 3, 2017 4:40 pm

After a storm of criticism, including from President-elect Donald Trump, House Republicans have reversed themselves and restored the current rules of the Office of Congressional Ethics.

GOP members met Tuesday afternoon and agreed by unanimous consent to withdraw a change to House rules approved late Monday evening, before the new Congress was sworn in, that would have weakened the ethics office, an independent watchdog first established in 2008 under House Democrats.

According to lawmakers in the room, GOP leaders said the change was a distraction from their agenda and that the issue needed further vetting.

Public outcry, opposition from ethics watchdog groups, a divided GOP, and two tweets from Trump critical of the rules change prompted a swift reversal of the proposal authored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

Trump questioned, via Tweet, Congress' priorities. He tweeted a pair of posts saying that while the OCE was "unfair," Congress had more important issues to take up, including tax reform and health care.

Inclusion of the ethics measure threatened to bring down the entire rules package — the governing rules of the chamber — that is headed for a vote later Tuesday. The majority party traditionally passes the rules package on its votes alone, and a defeat would have been an embarrassing start for Republicans in the new Congress.

House Ethics Chairwoman Susan Brooks, R-Ind., said that the ethics panel will review the proposal and come back to the conference with any recommendations by late summer or early fall. Republicans said they would like to have Democratic buy-in to any proposed changes to the OCE. Several Democrats in recent years have also voiced criticism of the OCE, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who played a critical role in establishing the office, has fought back any efforts to reduce its role.

Pelosi said in a statement that "House Republicans showed their true colors last night" and decried "the toxic dysfunction of a Republican House that will do anything to further their special interest agenda, thwart transparency and undermine the public trust."

Democrats did not immediately comment on whether they would take part in an Ethics Committee review.

Opposition to the gutting of the office was swift and came from some unexpected sources in addition to Trump.

Exhibit A: Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist, whose conviction on influence-peddling charges helped lead to the creation of the OCE, told Politico the Republicans' action was "exactly the opposite of what Congress should be doing."

Former Rep. Bob Ney, who also served time after being convicted as part of the same scandal, said, "House Republicans should not have done this and also the way they did it without announcing it is not a public policy to be proud of."

Judicial Watch, the conservative group that has led efforts to release former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emails, called the House rules change "shady and corrupt" and a "drive by effort" to eliminate the OCE, as well as "a poor way for the Republican majority to begin 'draining the swamp.' "

House Speaker Paul Ryan had issued a statement saying many members feel that after eight years, the office "is in need of reform." Ryan argued the office would continue to operate independently and still take complaints from members of the public. He said the House Ethics Committee would merely provide oversight of the complaints office but insisted that the office "is not controlled by the committee."

The Project on Government Oversight also chimed in, saying ethics watchdogs like the OCE "need to be strengthened and expanded — not taken out back and shot in the middle of the night."

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Today the story on Capitol Hill was supposed to be about the new era of total Republican control in Washington, but before the new Congress began, there was fresh drama in the House, where party leaders were overruled. Lawmakers were divided. And President-elect Donald Trump was tweeting in opposition to his own party.

This all came about after House Republicans initially voted late last night to weaken an independent body that investigates ethics complaints against House lawmakers. House speaker Paul Ryan opposed it, but a majority of House Republicans passed it anyway. Then in less than 24 hours, Republicans were forced to reverse course and withdraw the proposal. They say they'll try again later this year.

NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here to explain all of this back and forth. Susan, can you hear me?


CORNISH: So why did Republicans all of a sudden back away from this proposed ethics change?

DAVIS: Well, they faced a sudden and swift backlash. One, they heard it from their constituents who were calling them and saying they thought this was a bad idea. There was almost unanimous opposition from outside watchdogs, both liberal and conservative, saying they didn't want to see this happen. And then you had the president-elect weigh in and say, you know, while he may have some issues with the process, he thinks there is much better things Republicans should be spending their time on.

So while the substance of this is still something that a lot of Republicans want to have a conversation about and arguably some Democrats do, too, the optics of doing something like this on the first day of a new Congress with an incoming president who has promised to, quote, "drain the swamp" - it just did not fly.

And it became pretty clear by late morning that if they were going to try and pursue it, they would not have the votes for it on the floor, and that would have been pretty embarrassing for Republicans.

CORNISH: So what was the thinking from the lawmakers who wanted to change it? I mean you described essentially a kind of bipartisan backlash.

DAVIS: Right, you know, and I think that's part of the reason why it's kind of hard to explain this - 'cause it just at this face comes across as saying they're rolling back ethics rules. And the proposal was from Bob Goodlatte. He's a Republican from Virginia. And part of his concern is that the outside - this independent body, the Office of Congressional Ethics, has an ability to take up anonymous complaints against members of Congress. And part of this would have made it - banned those anonymous complaints.

And their part was, in any other normal court proceeding, you have a due process right that allows you to confront your accuser and no more information. And it also sometimes can cost members a lot of legal fees to defend themselves against complaints from unknown sources.

And so there was also an issue of whether this is redundant to the House Ethics Committee, which is a bipartisan committee that also looks at some of these issues. The difference is the House Ethics Committee can only take complaints from members. The outside group could take complaints from members of the public. So by limiting that and potentially putting it under the oversight of the Ethics Committee, it was generally seen as undermining the independence of this group.

CORNISH: Now, Donald Trump in his tweet about this did use the word unfair to describe the Office of Congressional Ethics. But what is it that ultimately changed their minds?

DAVIS: Well, you know, Republicans say that is not the reason, that Trump's tweet was not the reason they did it. But I talked to many lawmakers who were in the room when they decided to reverse course who said their party leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, look; if this is not a priority for our president-elect, it should not be a priority for us right now.

What they say they're going to do is they're going to direct the House Ethics Committee - again, bipartisan committee, evenly split between five Republicans and five Democrats - to look at this issue, to look at the OCE and to see if they have any recommendations on how to change the system and report back to the House later this year.

Historically and customarily, when there's any changes to the ethics process, it has tended to be done in a bipartisan fashion to eliminate this kind of, you know, fight and drama we saw today.

CORNISH: In the meantime, does this tell us anything about Republicans in Congress and Trump?

DAVIS: Well, I think it tells us that Trump is absolutely going to be willing to criticize his own party when he sees fit and probably on Twitter. You know, I also talked to a lot of Republicans who said maybe this will teach some of the rank and file to put a little bit more trust into party leaders like Paul Ryan who warn them not to do things when they're a bad idea. And maybe going down the line, they might listen to them a little bit more closely.

CORNISH: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, thanks.

DAVIS: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.