Things are not off to the most auspicious start for the 115th Congress, which was gaveled into session late Tuesday morning. Facing massive public blowback, including criticism from their own party’s incoming President, Republicans in the House of Representatives have backed down from their plan to eliminate an independent ethics watchdog in one of their first acts of the new Congress.
The original plan, to strip the Office of Congressional Ethics of much of its independence and of its ability to make its findings public, was passed in a secret vote Monday night, against the wishes of senior leaders in the Republican conference, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. It was to be part of a new package of rules for the operation of the House during the new session.
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The very public retreat from the proposal can be seen one of two ways—or both. It could serve as confirmation that in the 115th Congress, GOP leaders will continue to have trouble controlling their members, who in recent years have eagerly undermined what they view as the “establishment” in Congress.
It could also serve as a corrective to any sense on the part of Republicans looking forward to their party’s total control of the executive and legislative branches, that anything goes in the Washington of 2017.
The move generated an immediate outcry on social media after it began to be widely reported on Monday night.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who introduced the proposal, was widely mocked on social media for his insistence that the plan, which he sponsored, actually “builds upon and strengthens” ethics oversight in the new Congress.
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Good government advocates blasted the move as a grave mistake.
“If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining OCE, 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,” the leaders of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said in a statement.
Democrats were also scathingly critical.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in a statement, “Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.” Pelosi was Speaker of the House when the OCE was established.
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By mid-morning, individual members of the Republican House majority were distancing themselves from the plan, releasing statements saying they would vote against the new rules package unless it was repealed.
President-elect Donald Trump got into the act as well, tweeting out criticism that suggested he was upset more with the timing of the decision than with its substance: “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!”
When time came to swear in the newly-elected members of the House of Representatives late Tuesday morning, many Republican members were notably absent from the chamber, instead attending an emergency caucus meeting to address the fallout from the rule change.
Shortly after noon, members leaving the meeting told reporters that the Goodlatte amendment to the rules was to be stripped out of the rules package, though some indicated that it might reappear at a less politically fraught time.