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House GOP scraps plan to gut ethics watchdog after emergency meeting
House Republicans abruptly withdrew a proposal to weaken an independent ethics watchdog on Tuesday, in a rocky start to the new Congress.
The 115th session hadn't even formally gaveled in before House GOP leaders held an emergency conference meeting to discuss blowback against the party's vote to gut the chamber's independent ethics watchdog.
The reversal of course came hours after President-elect Donald Trump issued a series of tweets questioning the timing of the changes, which would put the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) under oversight of the House Ethics Committee.
Even before Trump weighed in, a barrage of negative headlines and public outcry made it difficult for Republicans to stand by the measure, especially given that the Republican president-elect had campaigned on a promise to "drain the swamp" of Washington, D.C., of corruption.
"We shot ourselves in the foot," Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) told reporters after the conference meeting.
Simpson recounted turning on the TV early Tuesday morning and quickly predicting the provision would have to go.
"I could have told you last night when we left this would be undone by the time the rules package came up. Because I could see the headlines coming out this morning," he said.
Republicans acknowledged that the effort to gut OCE on the first day of the new Congress backfired badly.
"Part of it is the headlines were we were backing off on ethics. So that's not a good headline when it comes to messaging," said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.).
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) both opposed the changes, floated as part of a rules package for the new Congress, during the Monday night conference meeting. The changes were adopted without advance notice and on a federal holiday.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) authored the proposal to give the Ethics Committee jurisdiction over the OCE. His measure also would have prevented the OCE from considering anonymous tips about lawmaker wrongdoing, a move that ethics reform advocates worried would limit whistleblowers who feared retaliation for going public with accusations.
Another provision would have barred the OCE from employing a communications director, a move intended by proponents to prevent leaks about investigations to the media.
Defenders of Goodlatte's proposal said it would have ensured due process for lawmakers.
"Jesus had the right to face his accusers. He asserted that before the high priest. And we're saying members of Congress shouldn't?" said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Incoming House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) told reporters she plans to work with Democrats on ways to reform the OCE. Republicans said after the meeting that any ethics reforms needed bipartisan credibility to move forward.
"This was not the way that we wanted to start this Congress," Brooks told reporters. "We need to work in a bipartisan way because there are reforms that need to be made."
The House established the OCE in 2008 under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in response to a string of ethics scandals ensnaring GOP lawmakers.
Democrats at the time pushed for its creation and other ethics reforms by pledging to "drain the swamp," the very same phrase recently adopted by Trump.
The nonpartisan OCE has free rein to probe allegations made against lawmakers and makes recommendations to the House Ethics Committee.
The Ethics Committee then decides whether to open a formal investigation into a lawmaker and if punishment is merited in a given case.
The rules package, now without the OCE provisions, will be considered on the House floor later Tuesday afternoon.
Updated 1:28 p.m.