Amid Public Backlash, House Republicans Abandon Plan to Gut Ethics Office

Congress began its 115th session Tuesday. (Dustin Gaffke / CC 2.0)

Less than 24 hours after the House GOP voted to essentially eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), Republican lawmakers announced a reversal of the move. CNN reported:

In an emergency meeting just before noon Tuesday, House Republican lawmakers voted to strip the move on the ethics agency from a package of rules that is due to be voted upon later in the House of Representatives. Their decision to adopt the measure Monday night had opened splits in the GOP and put House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump on opposite sides of a key issue on the first day of the 115th Congress.

The initial vote to gut the OCE, which “was created in 2008 in the aftermath of a series of scandals involving House lawmakers,” came during an unannounced session late Monday, in which House Republicans voted “over the objections of Speaker Paul D. Ryan,” The New York Times reported.

“The changes would have renamed the OCE as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and ensured that the office would not have been allowed to employ a spokesperson, investigate anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee,” according to The Washington Post.

As the news of this vote spread early Tuesday, politicians of both parties publicly criticized the move. Most notably, President-elect Donald Trump—who campaigned heavily on the promise of ridding Washington, D.C., of elite insiders—took to Twitter to criticize the move:

#DTS stands for Trump’s slogan “Drain the Swamp,” although many have pointed to Trump’s own cabinet picks as a reflection of elitist influences in politics.

Along with Trump, “House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) opposed changing the OCE when rank-and-file Republicans decided to defy them with a vote on Monday,” The Washington Post reported.

Additionally, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch criticized the vote. President Tom Fitton stated in a press release:

It is shameful that House Republicans are trying to destroy the Office of Congressional Ethics, the most significant ethics reform in Congress when it was established nearly a decade ago. This drive-by effort to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics, which provides appropriate independence and transparency to the House ethics process, is a poor way for the Republican majority to begin “draining the swamp.” The American people will see this latest push to undermine congressional ethics enforcement as shady and corrupt. The full House should seriously consider whether it wants to bear the brunt of public outrage and go through with the rule change this afternoon.

Top Democrats also lambasted the House GOP’s move. Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke out on Twitter, where she added a critique of the incoming Trump administration’s ethical dilemmas:

Sen. Chuck Schumer also argued that the vote showed how GOP lawmakers failed to “keep their party promise”:

The New York Times labeled

the House GOP’s quick reversal “embarrassing,” and few politicians on either side of the issue have reacted publicly to the sudden change.

Rep. Susan W. Brooks, the incoming chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee, stated that she plans to “work in a bipartisan manner” with the OCE to “ensure its independence [and] maintain the highest ethical standards of the House.” She also released a full statement on Twitter:

It’s not clear what motivated the about-face, but The Washington Post reported that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy held a meeting that may have spooked House Republicans:

According to several people in the private meeting Tuesday, McCarthy convened the gathering and laid out options for proceeding: Either Republicans could decide among themselves to change course on the ethics changes, or the matter would be hashed out on the House floor, where members would have their views publicly recorded.

With that, he asked if there was any objection. While some members maintained the House should act immediately to rein in the OCE, the vast majority agreed to eliminate the proposal and move on.

“Essentially it was, we can handle it here, or we can handle it on the floor,” said one person present who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The OCE may still face changes in the future, however. NPR reported that according to Brooks, “the ethics panel will review the proposal and come back to the conference with any recommendations by late summer or early fall.”

Emma Niles
Assistant Editor
Emma Niles, an assistant editor at Truthdig, graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a degree in political science. She has worked for the National Women’s Law Center and Ms. Magazine.…
Emma Niles

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