A surprise move by a group of House Republicans to gut an independent ethics office caught leaders flatfooted — and sparked a national backlash.
Just hours after Republicans voted to gut the House’s independent ethics office, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s phone started lighting up with calls and texts.
The California Republican had tried to warn his colleagues about the political risks of defanging the Office of Congressional Ethics during a closed-door, secret ballot roll call Monday night. And after that vote, a number of lawmakers who agreed with McCarthy raised serious concerns about approving the controversial pitch in a public vote the next day.
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By early Tuesday morning, McCarthy, Speaker Paul Ryan and the rest of GOP leadership realized the proposal was about to tank the entire House rules package — and implode the first day of the GOP-led Congress. They convened an emergency closed-door conference meeting around noon to discuss removing the ethics provision — but it was too late. Donald Trump had tweeted his disapproval, and the public outcry had risen to such a crescendo that all anyone wanted to talk about was an obscure House office few people had ever heard of just 24 hours before.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who added that the ethics snafu was an unforced error. “Sometimes people have to learn the hard way.”
House Republican’s push to neuter the OCE on the first day of a new Congress turned into a major public relations fiasco after the press, the public and president-elect himself came out against the move Tuesday. Trump, after all, ran on a platform of “draining the swamp” of an all-too-cozy Washington — a pitch that didn’t mesh well with the proposal to rein in oversight of lawmakers’ ethical issues.
So the opening of the 115th Congress, which was supposed to center on Obamacare repeal and GOP unity, ended up being being overwhelmed by another issue. That Ryan was re-elected speaker on the same day with only one Republican defection — a positive sign for a GOP leader who’s faced restive conservatives in the past — became a mere afterthought, for example.
Republican leaders vowed to revisit the issue over the summer, although Tuesday’s problems could provide a lesson. Given that they control all of the levers of power in D.C., Democratic resistance won’t provide the political cover it used to over the last eight years. Washington belongs to Republicans — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“I think a move in that direction would be bad policy and bad politics,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who blasted the refoms. “It’s probably not the way you want to start out [the new Congress].”
A number of Hill Republicans have been seeking to curb the powers of the ethics watchdog for years. Privately, they say the office is too aggressive, pursues baseless anonymous tips and has become an unfair burden, both financially and politically, on lawmakers. Each time members approached ex-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) about the matter, he deferred, saying this is something that should be done a bipartisan basis. But bipartisan reforms never materialized.
So Goodlatte, backed by a group of lawmakers who felt they had been wrongly accused by the OCE, devised a plan to rein in the office. They worked in secret for weeks, making sure word didn’t leak out to Democrats or the media. Then, just before House Republicans met to approve their rules package for the new Congress, they unveiled their amendment to scale back the powers of the OCE and put it under the House Ethics Committee’s jurisdiction.
The gambit caught leadership flatfooted, and Goodlatte’s side triumphed in the closed-door GOP meeting, but problems quickly developed. Democrats blasted Republicans for jamming through something so sensitive as their first act of the new Congress. Congress had created the office in the wake of Jack Abramoff scandal, which included the GOP lobbyist’s admission that he tried to bribe lawmakers. At the time, lawmakers hoped to stop anything like that from ever happening again.
Following a barrage of negative stories on Monday night, lawmakers were bombarded by a wave of phone calls to their offices criticizing the move. Republican leadership tried to change the narrative the following morning, although they never embraced Goodlatte’s proposal. Ryan put out a statement saying OCE was still independent despite the rules revisions, and McCarthy tried to argue the same during a press conference with reporters.
But that around the same time, Trump called out the proposal on Twitter.
“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,” Trump said in one tweet, adding, “… may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS.”
Those tweets, on top of the thousands of phone calls and the wave of negative press, sources said, were the nail in the coffin. Republicans who had supported the idea the night before started to second-guess themselves.
“I don’t think there was any problem with the merit of the policy that needed to be changed. I just think it was how it was done,” said longtime Trump supporter Lou Barletta (R-Pa.). “The perception is not good.”
Barletta said Trump’s tweets at Congress are going to send “some shockwaves through Congress”— and they should probably get used to it.
“It’s going to send shivers down the spines of some members,” he added.
Democrats, meanwhile, decided in a closed-door meeting that they would protest the OCE change when the rules package came to the House floor Tuesday. They were readying a plan to pull out their cell phones and start livestreaming a demonstration on the House floor — something that irked House Republicans during the June “sit in” on gun control. (Republicans also included a provision in the rules package to fine members for violating the prohibitions on photos on livestreaming specifically. )
Just after 11 a.m., GOP leadership met in the speaker’s office. By then, everyone was on the same page: It was time to strike the ethics change. Leaders convened an emergency conference, just hours before members were sworn in, to try to convince their colleagues to take out the OCE language.
McCarthy told Republicans they did not run for Congress to fight over an obscure office but to repeal Obamacare and do tax reform — and it was time to scuttle the rules change. He gave them an option: vote now to strike the Goodlatte amendment, or he would offer an amendment to do so on the floor himself, taking the fight into the public sphere.
He met some resistance. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who’s been under criminal and ethical investigation for years, was irate that leadership wanted the conference to back off. Young, as well as Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) tried to get leadership to commit to reforming the office by a specific future date. GOP leadership would not.
Other Republicans said Trump should not have gotten involved in the matter to begin with. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) stood up to say Trump should not be meddling in internal House matters, according to several sources in the room. Shuster’s spokeswoman Casey Contres denied that he used those words, but acknowledged that he “did express, however, the importance of separation of powers and Congress establishing these rules — not the executive branch.”
In the end, even Goodlatte backed leadership’s propose to strike his provision, blaming the press and his adversaries for “gross misrepresentation” of his proposal.
The day left some members shaking their heads. Many, including Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), left the chamber Tuesday night crossing their fingers that the drama of the first day would not foreshadow the next two years to come.
“I think that there is going to be a lot of tough votes we will have to take and this wasn’t one of the toughest ones, so, I think we should learn from this,” he said. “Once you launch that ship, you’ve got to keep going… We need to go forth with more sense of purpose and direction.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.