House Republicans, facing a storm of bipartisan criticism, including from President-elect Donald Trump, moved early Tuesday afternoon to reverse their plan to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. It was an embarrassing turnabout on the first day of business for the new Congress, a day when party leaders were hoping for a show of force to reverse policies of the Obama administration.
The reversal came less than 24 hours after House Republicans, meeting in a secret session, voted, over the objections of Speaker Paul D. Ryan, to eliminate the independent ethics office. It was created in 2008 in the aftermath of a series of scandals involving House lawmakers, including three who were sent to jail.
Republicans, led by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, had sought to prevent the quasi-independent ethics office from taking up investigations that might involve criminal charges, and they wanted to grant lawmakers on the more powerful House Ethics Committee the right to shut down any of the inquiries. They also wanted to block the small staff at the Office of Congressional Ethics from speaking to the media.
“It has damaged or destroyed a lot of political careers in this place, and it’s cost members of Congress millions of dollars to defend themselves against anonymous allegations,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said Tuesday, still defending the move.
But the resolve to curb the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics crumbled Tuesday morning, as hundreds of phone calls flooded lawmakers’ offices and both conservative and liberal ethics groups issued statements condemning the move. So did some Republican lawmakers, who said it was the wrong message to send to the public.
“It was a stumble,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who himself was the subject of an ethics investigation while he served as governor in South Carolina. “Probably not the way you want to start out.”
Trump had weighed in himself, suggesting that the House should instead be focused on domestic policy priorities. In a pair of postings on Twitter, Trump called the Office of Congressional Ethics “unfair,” but he said turning attention to it now was a case of misplaced priorities. He appended the hashtag “DTS,” an apparent allusion to his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
Ryan and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, had made clear as of Monday that they were also opposed to the ethics office’s powers. On Tuesday, McCarthy said he broadly agreed with Trump’s message position, which seemed to focus more on the timing of taking up the ethics issue rather than the substance of the complaints about it.
“Those are the same arguments I made last night in conference,” he said, adding that he and Ryan did not have the power to simply tell other Republican members what to do.
“Welcome back,” he joked, referring to the start of the new session of Congress on Tuesday. Even at home, he said, “I usually don’t win what we watch on TV.”
Since it first started to take up cases in 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics – which has a budget of just $1.4 million and a staff of nine, including five lawyers – has provoked criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, particularly lawmakers like former Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., and Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who say it treated them unfairly during investigations.