House Republicans relent, back off plans to change ethics rules
House Republicans Relent, Back Off Plans to Change Ethics Rules
WASHINGTON - Less than 24 hours after approving a rule that critics said would gut an independent congressional ethics watchdog, House Republicans withdrew it, bowing to pressure from watchdogs, constituents and even a tweet from President-Elect Donald Trump.
During a day typically marked by plenty of ceremonial procedure but little drama, House Republicans were forced to begin a new session of Congress, the 115th, by scuttling a rule change putting the independent Office of Congressional Ethics under partial jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee. Supporters of the change said it would keep bureaucrats from policing lawmakers, sometimes unfairly. But watchdogs said it would essentially put House members in charge of enforcing behavior.
GOP leaders scrambled to contain the damage, and within hours of Trump registering his criticism on Twitter, they called an emergency meeting, where House Republicans voted to undo the change.
The episode, coming even before the new Congress was convened and lawmakers were sworn in, was a powerful illustration of the sway Trump may hold over his party in a Washington that will be fully under Republican control for the first time in a decade. GOP lawmakers who've felt unfairly targeted by the ethics office had defied their own leaders with their initial vote to neuter the body, but once Trump weighed in they backpedaled immediately.
"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 had asked over Twitter Tuesday morning. Trump, who will take office in a little over two weeks, said the focus should be on tax reform and health care, and he included the hash-tag #DTS, for "drain the swamp," his oft-repeated campaign promise to bring change to Washington.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy mentioned Trump's opposition in the emergency meeting, and some lawmakers said it had a powerful effect.
"I do believe when President-elect Trump tweeted out ... members got calls," said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa.
The rule change initially came with little notice and was backed by 119 House Republicans. Democrats, in the minority, did not get to vote on the change.
Ohio Republicans weren’t required to disclose their votes — the meeting was private — but Reps. Pat Tiberi of southern Delaware County; Steve Stivers of Columbus; Bill Johnson of Marietta; Bob Latta of Bowling Green; Dave Joyce of Lake County; Steve Chabot of Cincinnati; and Warren Davidson of Troy said they voted against the rule change, putting them among 74 Republicans to oppose it.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, was the only one who said he voted in support of the change. Other Republicans in the House delegation declined to say how they voted: Bob Gibbs of Lakeville, Mike Turner of Dayton, Jim Renacci of Wadsworth and Brad Wenstrup of Cincinnati.
“While I certainly understand the importance of due process, I believe this change is a mistake,” Rep. Johnson said. “It is critically important that all public servants — across the public spectrum — are held to the highest ethical standards.”
Tiberi, of Genoa Township, said he also opposed the rule change.
“In the GOP conference meeting last night, I opposed the measure to change the Office of Congressional Ethics, and wished more members had done the same," he said. "I am pleased that the conference came together (Tuesday) and stripped this ill-advised provision from our rules package. If there is a better way for this office to operate, those changes should be made in an open, transparent and bipartisan way."
Jordan defended the move.
“The House Ethics Committee is completely bipartisan, and I know the members of that committee take their jobs very seriously," he said. "I am confident they will continue to work together in a nonpartisan way to make sure members of Congress follow the rules of the House, and that they don’t receive any special treatment under the law.”
Watchdogs said that the move would have gutted the congressional ethics system and sent a terrible message to voters after Trump and others vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C.
“Before the creation of the office, the House Ethics Committee was a black box of inaction,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “The office has brought transparency and action to a moribund process and received nothing but praise from those watching the congressional ethics system.”
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Township, expressed relief that Republicans reversed course on the ethics rule, but she said the rules package continues to include a provision that would effectively punish Democrats who staged a "sit-in" over gun control last June. She said she would not support the "politically motivated" rule.
The Office of Congressional Ethics was formed in the wake of the scandal involving Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist convicted of various corrupt dealings, including with Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison 10 years ago.