House Republicans drop plans to gut ethics office

© The Associated Press Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, left, talks with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, as the 115th Congress gets underway.
Retreating after Trump tweet, GOP won't gut ethics office

WASHINGTON — The new GOP era in Washington got off to a messy start Tuesday as House Republicans, under pressure from President-elect Donald Trump, abruptly dropped plans to gut an independent congressional ethics board.

The dizzying about-face came as lawmakers convened for the first day of the 115th Congress, an occasion normally reserved for pomp and ceremony under the Capitol Dome. Instead, House Republicans found themselves under attack not only from Democrats but from their new president, over their secretive move Monday to neuter the independent Office of Congressional Ethics and place it under lawmakers' control.

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 without opposition 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, in an objection that appeared focused more on timing than on substance. 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.

Democrats and even many Republicans were quick to point out that the lawmakers' plans for their ethics watchdog flew in the face of that notion. The measure was part of a GOP-written rules package that looked like it could fail after Trump registered his objections amid a public outcry from good government activists. The stripped-down package was approved late Tuesday by the House, 234-193.

"We were elected on a promise to drain the swamp, and starting the session by relaxing ethics rules is a very bad start," said GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California.

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. Trump spoke by phone with House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday after the ethics change was dropped.

The Office of Congressional Ethics was created in 2008 after several bribery and corruption cases in the House, but lawmakers of both parties have groused about the way it operates.

Lawmakers were especially incensed by an investigation of members of Congress from both parties who went on a 2013 trip to Azerbaijan paid for by that country's government. Lawmakers said after the investigation was made public in 2015 that they had no idea the trip was paid for by the government, and the House Ethics Committee ultimately cleared them.

Once the ethics controversy was dispensed with, Congress returned to the ceremonial business. As set out in the Constitution, both chambers gaveled in at noon, and as storm clouds threatened outside, the halls of the Capitol filled with lawmakers' children, friends and spouses on hand to witness the procedures. The day had a festive feel of the first day back at school, as new arrivals roamed the halls with old hands, exchanging greetings and taking in the day.

In the Senate, seven new members joined those who won re-election, taking the oath of office administered by Vice President Joe Biden. The Senate will be controlled 52-48 by the GOP and includes two new Republicans and five new Democrats. They include Illinois' Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee Iraq war vet, who walked to the dais and stood for the oath.

Biden remains president of the Senate until Trump becomes president Jan. 20; then Vice President-elect Mike Pence will take over.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York set battle lines, saying Democrats will hold Trump to his promises to create jobs, raise incomes and protect Americans but will "fight him tooth and nail when he appeals to the baser instincts that diminish America and its greatness."

Issues confronting America are complex, he said, and "we cannot tweet them away."

In the House, lawmakers easily re-elected Ryan, of Wisconsin, as their speaker. The House will number 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats; among the members are 52 freshmen.

Behind the ceremony was a sense of anticipation, as Republicans prepare an ambitious agenda, beginning with dismantling President Barack Obama's health care law. The GOP directed Senate committees to produce repeal legislation by Jan. 27 while debate begins this week.

But there was uncertainty, too, as Republicans confront an untested new president who has opposed fundamental elements of GOP orthodoxy and may exercise his influence in unpredictable ways, as illustrated with the ethics kerfuffle.

"The people have given us unified government, and it wasn't because they were feeling generous, it's because they wanted results," Ryan said. "How could we live with ourselves if we let them down?"

Everything You Need to Know About the Office of Congressional Ethics

In a quick turnaround, a GOP-backed amendment to make sweeping changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was swiftly withdrawn, after a wave of negative reactions.

The amendment, which was adopted during a late-night session ahead of today’s formal start of the 115th Congress, effectively planned to do away with the OCE's ability to act autonomously and prevent them from making their findings public without congressional oversight.

Instead, the proposed amendment was withdrawn by unanimous consent, meaning that the OCE will remain untouched for now.

Here is an overview of the work done by the OCE:

The Number of Investigations

The number of investigations the Office of Congressional Ethics initiates varies per congressional term. The highest number came in the first term after the OCE was launched in 2009, following multiple reports of misconduct including the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

The first session of the OCE, during the 111th Congress, launched 59 preliminary investigations.

But in the following sessions, the numbers dropped: 32 preliminary investigations in the 112th Congress, 36 in the 113th Congress, and 35 through the third quarter of 2016 in the 114th Congress, which is the latest quarterly report available.

Not all preliminary investigations have led to full investigations. For example, the 113th Congress between 2013 and 2014, had 36 preliminary reviews. Of those, 14 were terminated quickly, six were dismissed and 16 others were marked for further review.

Topics Under Investigation

The OCE currently lists summaries of some, but not all, of the investigations on their website, detailing the questions raised about alleged actions of particular representatives and the status of their investigations.

Rep. Tom Price, Donald Trump's pick for secretary of Health and Human Services, was investigated after questions were raised about whether he solicited campaign donations in a way that gave special treatment to the donors. The investigation was dismissed in 2011.

A number of the case summaries say they reached the final stage of the investigation ladder, which often means the Ethics Committee is called to investigate the particular case further. Those resulting decisions are not regularly made public.

Two cases concluded in that way were investigations into possible misuse of official resources by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) in 2013 and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) in 2015. Both investigations spanned about three months.

Some other investigations stemmed from questions over the payment of certain travel taken by congressmen, like a so-called campaign trip that Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) took with his family to California in August 2015. While the five-and-a-half-day trip did include three campaign meetings, according to the summary, it also included a visit to Universal Studios and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. That case has been referred to the committee for further review.

Widespread Negative Reactions

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement after the amendment was adopted on Monday, saying "evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."

But Democrats aren't the only ones crying foul.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said this morning that he didn't think it was the good timing for a controversial change to the chamber's independent ethics watchdog.

"I didn't think it was the right time to do it," he said on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" today. He still planned to vote for the bill, though, he said at the time of the interview. But since it was withdrawn by unanimous consent, no votes were heard.

President-elect Trump also weighed in on the amendment before it was withdrawn. Trump posted his thoughts on Twitter this morning, writing across two tweets, "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" and then, "........may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS"

Did a Trump tweet save the Office of Congressional Ethics? Not really

In one of the quickest reversals in recent political history, House Republicans on Tuesday scuttled a plan to change the rules in a way that would have weakened the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. The office, created in 2008 after a series of scandals involving House members, serves as a kind of grand jury for the House Ethics Committee and issues reports that are made public.

The new rules proposed by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) would have reduced the autonomy of the watchdog office in several ways: by preventing the release of the results of its investigations without permission of the Ethics Committee; by stopping it from following up on anonymous complaints; and by prohibiting it from referring possible criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without Ethics Committee approval. The office also would have gotten a new name:  the Office of Congressional Complaint Review.

The last-minute shelving of the new rules, which had been approved by Republicans at a meeting Monday, was a major victory for aggressive ethics enforcement. As a 2010 Los Angeles Times editorial argued, the OCE “has made it harder for the Ethics Committee to engage in backdoor cover-ups and deal-making.”

But who should get credit for the rescue of the office? Could it be President-elect Donald Trump?

It would be easy for readers of news coverage of the turnabout to get that impression. Several noted that Trump had criticized the proposed rules change in a tweet posted Tuesday morning. 

Here’s the sub-headline of the story in BuzzFeed: “Amid criticism from Donald Trump, Democrats and ethics experts over their move to severely limit the Office of Congressional Ethics’ powers on day one, House Republicans unanimously voted to kill the amendment Tuesday.”

USA Today quoted Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) who opposed the rules change, saying: "Never underestimate the power of a Donald Trump tweet.”

Not so fast.

First of all, Trump’s two-part tweet was hardly a ringing endorsement of the OCE’s work or current independence.

What he actually wrote was this: “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”

Except for the hashtag (an abbreviation for “Drain the Swamp”), there was little in the tweet to encourage supporters of OCE. Trump seemed to be criticizing the priority congressional Republicans were attaching to gutting the office, not their ultimate objective of defanging an “unfair” watchdog.

Also, Trump wasn’t the only – or the most important – factor in the backlash. As the Los Angeles Times story noted, “Good-government and watchdog groups warned Republicans to switch course.”

Furthermore, a torrent of news articles Monday evening and Tuesday morning brought the Republicans’ attack on the office to the attention of the House members’ constituents.

As Brian Beutler of the New Republic complained on Twitter: “Amazingly, the OCE outcome is the direct result of quality journalism, yet journalists are falling over themselves to hand credit to Trump.”

(It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the first attempt to weaken the OCE – it has been under attack before, from both Republicans and Democrats. And both good-government groups and newspaper editorialists opposed previous attempts to rein in the office.)

No doubt Trump’s tweet had some effect on House Republicans, who aren’t eager to antagonize the Republican who will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20.  But this was not an example of “I alone can fix it.”

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