WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump dramatically strong-armed House Republicans into line Tuesday in his first Washington power play, after they voted to gut an ethics watchdog in a manner that undercut his vow to drain the establishment “swamp.”
Trump made clear his anger at the move on his Twitter account, and GOP lawmakers hurriedly changed plans to target the independent panel, backing down in a controversy that threatened to overshadow the dawn of a new conservative era in Washington.
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 swift developments were a first sign of how Trump plans to govern and wield the power of his presidency — and his Twitter account — to bend Washington to his will and an early indication of the new power dynamic between Congress and the White House.
Trump called out his fellow Republicans for proposing to curb the powers of the independent ethics panel as their first move of the year, although the President-elect suggested the ethics panel was “unfair.”
“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. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS,” Trump said over two consecutive tweets.
Although House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy originally told reporters the vote was moving forward, he told Republicans in the hastily scheduled meeting that the rules package didn’t have the votes, Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pennsylvania, said.
Monday night, House Republicans voted 119-74 during a closed-door meeting in favor of Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s proposal, which would place the independent Office of Congressional Ethics under the control of those very lawmakers. The full House was set to vote on the plan Tuesday, part of a larger package of House rules changes.
After Trump’s tweets, Ryan defended the proposed changes, marking the first high-profile break with the President-elect just days into the new year.
“After eight years of operation, many members believe the Office of Congressional Ethics is in need of reform to protect due process and ensure it is operating according to its stated mission,” Ryan said in a statement. “I want to make clear that this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the Office will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress.”
An aide close to Ryan familiar with the discussions tells CNN that “Ryan spoke out against the amendment and opposed it throughout. Today’s statement is an explanation of what the reform means and the action the speaker is taking to protect the office’s independence.”
But the proposed change in rules carried the appearance of House members taking power away from the office that can investigate them for misconduct, at a time when Republicans are about to have control of two branches of government with a mandate for shaking up Washington.
The proposal would have barred the panel from reviewing any violation of criminal law by members of Congress, requiring that it turn over complaints instead to the House Ethics Committee or refer the matter to an appropriate federal law enforcement agency. The House Ethics Committee would also have the power to stop an investigation at any point and bars the ethics office from making any public statements about any matters or hiring any communications staff.
And the ethics office would no longer be able to accept or investigate any anonymous reports of alleged wrongdoing by members of Congress.
Currently the ethics panel operates as an independent, non-partisan entity that has the power to investigate misconduct against lawmakers, officers and staff of the United States House of Representatives. Originally created by Congress under Nancy Pelosi’s speakership in the wake of multiple lobbying scandals, it continued to act as an independent body under then-House Speaker John Boehner.
Pelosi slammed the plan.
“House Republicans showed their true colors last night, and reversing their plans to destroy the Office of Congressional Ethics will not obscure their clear contempt for ethics in the People’s House,” she said in a statement after the Republicans withdrew the proposal. “Republicans should remember the strength of public outrage they faced in the space of 12 hours as they scheme to do lasting damage to the health and economic security of millions and millions of hard-working families.”
In Monday’s meeting, rank-and-file members disregarded opposition from Ryan and voted to approve the new structure for ethics reviews going forward, according to a senior House GOP leadership source familiar with the closed-door discussion.
Members of both parties complain that panel often takes up matters based on partisan accusations from outside groups with political motivations, and once they launch a probe members have to mount expensive defense campaigns.
In contrast to Trump’s tweets, his close aide Kellyanne Conway appeared supportive of the move in Tuesday television interviews.
“If a constituent has a complaint, they can still lodge that complaint,” Conway told NBC’s “Today” show, adding that she hadn’t spoken with Trump on this issue specifically. “They just can’t do it anonymously. And many of these people — members and their staffers who have been under investigation — they have complained about their due process rights being violated and compromised. They need protections, as well.”
Republicans defend the plan
Goodlatte defended his proposal in the wake of the outrage Monday evening, telling CNN that the move “will make sure that work is properly done,” but “will also make sure that people who are wrongly charged have an opportunity to protect themselves.”
“There should be no entity in the entire federal government that doesn’t have review by some committee of the Congress so that’s all it sets up is oversight,” he said. “It still has its designated statutory responsibilities. It has some new rules that it has to follow but it still is empowered to take complaints from individuals as it was intended to do and investigate those complaints but every agency of the government whether it’s executive, legislative or judicial should have a committee that reviews it’s work.”
GOP Rep. Hal Rogers, the Appropriations Committee chairman, told reporters he backed the proposal because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Rogers said there were “numerous examples” of members “who were falsely accused by this group who had to spend a fortune to get their good name restored so I think there’s been an abuse.”
Texas Congressman Bill Flores also backed the change, saying the panel is “out of control, we don’t even get constitutional rights, constitutional protections. They don’t tell us who accuses us and they leak the data — they are out of control.”
Could come back
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, vowed to personally continue pressing for the ethics reforms.
He said Trump’s remarks “animated the press” — leading the GOP to back away from what he said were changes that would have protected lawmakers from “public criticism that’s generated by anonymous accusers.”
“I’m concerned that now we have Republicans criticizing Republicans,” King said. “We need to stay away from that.”
Outside ethics group point to the ethics panel as the only real entity policing members and argue its independent status and bipartisan board are an appropriate way to oversee investigations.
“Gutting the independent ethics office is exactly the wrong way to start a new Congress,” said Chris Carson, spokesperson for League of Women Voters, in a statement. “This opens the door for special interest corruption just as the new Congress considers taxes and major infrastructure spending.”
Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group, said the ethics office “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.”
“If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining (the ethics office), 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,” they said in a Monday night statement.
Eisen served as the top ethics lawyer for President Barack Obama and Painter held the same job under President George W. Bush.
CNN’s Daniella Diaz, Eric Bradner, David Wright and Tal Kopan contributed to this report.