House Republicans scrapped plans to overhaul the Office of Congressional Ethics after the last-minute move drew ire from the left and right, including President-elect Donald Trump.
The OCE amendment was pulled from a rules package to be voted on at the convening of the 115th Congress on Tuesday. The House Republican Conference voted 119-74 late Monday to put the OCE under the oversight of the House Ethics Panel. Put forth by Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the measure would have severely curbed the entity's ability to crack down on wrongdoing by lawmakers.
Shortly before the measure was tabled, President-elect criticized the maneuver on Twitter.
"With all 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," he wrote, referencing his "drain the swamp" mantra, in a pair of tweets sent on Tuesday morning.
Established in 2008 under House Democrats in response to the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal, the OCE is an independent, non-partisan watchdog that reviews allegations of misconduct against members, officers and staff of the House of Representatives and refers matters to the House Committee on Ethics. Its reports and findings are publicly released.
Under the Republican-proposed rules, the OCE would become the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and be subject to the oversight of the Ethics Committee. Office staff would be barred from making public statements, and the entity would be unable to investigate anonymous tips. It would also be unable to investigate violations of criminal law, instead immediately referring any such matters to the Ethics Committee.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi slammed the move in a statement.
"Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress," she said, calling the OCE "essential to an effective ethics process in the House."
Senator Elizabeth Warren took to Twitter to criticize the GOP.
Tell us, @GOP: Who, exactly, thinks that the problem with Washington is that we have too many rules requiring the gov to act ethically?— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) January 3, 2017
She also took a swipe at Trump's still-unannounced plans for distancing himself from his business empire. Top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told CNN on Monday the president-elect will hold a press conference to discuss the matter on January 11. He has previously postponed the original December 15 date.
Abramoff, who has become an outspoken critic of corruption in Washington since serving a 43-month prison sentence for his misdeeds, told Politico the vote was "exactly the opposite" of what Congress should be doing.
House Speaker Paul Ryan released a carefully-worded statement on the proposed rules, apparently supporting the measure and promising its impact won't be as big as critics say.
"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. 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," he said.
Ryan said the office would continue to be governed by a bipartisan independent outside board and take complaints of wrongdoing from the public. He emphasized that the House Ethics Committee would oversee the complaints office but not control it.
"All members of Congress are required to earn the public's trust every single day, and this House will hold members accountable to the people," he said.
According to NPR, Ryan spoke out against the move in the Monday evening GOP meeting behind closed doors.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also opposed the ethics overhaul.
"I didn't think it was the right time to do it," he said in an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Tuesday morning. But like Ryan, he insisted not that much would change.
"The reforms do not change the entity. The public still registers a complaint, they still do the work with the ethics review, and it still goes forward to Ethics whether they should dismiss or review it," he said.
If the OCE rules had been kept in the broader package to be voted on by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, they would have been very likely to pass.
"Unless something extraordinary happens, it's a done deal," said Meredith McGehee, strategic adviser at Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group the Campaign Legal Center and chief of policy, programs and strategy at nonprofit group Issue One, earlier in the day.
The original point of the OCE was to get ethics issues out of the often dysfunctional ethics committee and create a body with credibility in the media and the public, she said, and this GOP-led effort would reverse that.
"It will just be the old boys club once again, protecting their own," she said.