In ethics watchdog flap, Trump shows influence over unruly GOP

By moving to weaken an independent congressional watchdog, House Republicans were showing signs of being as fractured as ever – until Trump stepped in. 

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS
U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia (l.), shown here speaking with Representative Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina on the House floor on Jan. 3, 2017, stirred controversy with his announcement the night before that House Republicans had decided to effectively kill the Office of Congressional Ethics.

On Tuesday, when members of the US House were expected on the floor to convene the new Congress, many Republicans were missing. They were huddling at an emergency meeting in the House basement, dealing with a gale-winds controversy of their own making: a GOP rules change to weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

Minutes later, they emerged from their caucus confab, having changed course. They would forgo the ethics rules changes – which their leaders and many caucus members had warned against in the first place. It took a public outcry and a tweet admonishment from President-elect Donald Trump to get them to drop the idea, for now anyway.

The #DTS hashtag referred to his “drain the swamp” campaign mantra.

The episode serves as a reminder of deep divisions within the Republican party that surfaced time and again during the last six years of divided government, but which a White House victory has managed to keep under control (74 Republicans had originally opposed the rules change). And it pointed to Mr. Trump’s ability to read the popular sentiment – and, at least in this case, keep his troops in line.

“For the first action of the new Congress to scuttle its independent ethics office was just about the worst signal they could possibly have sent. And it was done against the wishes of the leaders, which casts doubt on how effective the House leadership will be in controlling its own caucus and committee chairs,” writes former House historian Raymond Smock in an email.

Ambitious agenda

Ahead lies an ambitious agenda, even for a unified government: repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, regulation rollbacks, and a Supreme Court nominee – to name the early priorities. To succeed, the GOP will have to have itself in order.

“Trump was right to weigh in because it was becoming a distraction,” writes John Feehery in an email. Mr. Feehery was the spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois during the George W. Bush administration.

Several Republicans said they hadn’t heard about Trump’s tweet, though some said their offices had been getting calls from outraged constituents.

But the leadership certainly pointed out Trump’s objections at their emergency meeting, saying that his view should be taken into consideration, said Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, the former chair of the House ethics committee. Importantly, the leadership said there were not enough votes to pass the rules package with the ethics piece in it.

Congressman Dent told reporters he had warned his colleagues against the ethics rules change when it was considered behind closed doors on Monday – a federal holiday. He was particularly disturbed that the independent body would come under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee, a provision he thought was “overly vague.” Others have said that the move would have essentially killed the body’s independence.

Ethics in the House

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was created in 2008 because the Ethics Committee was deemed too weak in an era of serious ethical lapses by members. It was set up to be able to take anonymous tips about lawmakers from the public and, in the interest of transparency, to disclose its findings to the public and to government agencies.

But Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, whose amendment outlined the ethics rule changes, is concerned that potentially innocent members are harmed by such disclosures. His amendment would have prevented the OCE from such disclosures and from taking anonymous public tips.

Those changes and others relating to the committee were yanked back at the emergency meeting without any objection from members. Democrats have also had complaints about the OCE.

Republicans got past this issue for the day, but the willingness of some members to consider such a measure “indicates a real insensitivity to ethics issues,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

That’s not surprising, he says. More than two-thirds of their members were not serving during the congressional ethics scandals of the early 2000s, he points out.

Trump’s tweet was the “proverbial straw that broke the broke the camel’s back,” says Mr. Pitney.

“Apparently, the supporters of the change assumed that nobody pays attention to the internal procedures of the House. Their assumption proved wrong. Press coverage of the change lit up social media, and the House Republicans quickly figured out that they had a public relations disaster on their hands. The Trump tweet elevated the political temperature.”

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