By Matt Fuller, Paige Lavender
WASHINGTON ― After a torrent of bad headlines, countless phone calls to member offices, and two tweets from President-elect Donald Trump, House Republicans dropped their plans to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics Tuesday, just minutes before the House was set to gavel in for the 115th Congress and adopt their rules package for the next two years.
The amendment ― authored by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) ― would have placed the independent congressional ethics office under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee, changed the OCE’s name and barred the office from releasing reports to the public. In effect, it would have neutered Congress’ most aggressive watchdog.
The decision to strip the Goodlatte amendment came just before noon on Tuesday as Republicans planned to begin the 115th Congress. Earlier in the day, responding to numerous news reports about Republicans gutting the OCE, Trump asked in a tweet whether Republicans really had to make the “weakening” of the ethics office their first order of business, though he also didn’t necessarily come out against the idea of eventually overhauling the OCE.
Ethics groups were quick to criticize House Republicans for the effort. A coalition of groups including the Campaign for Accountability, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the League of Women Voters sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday calling for the reauthorization of the OCE.
Several other groups, including the conservative Judicial Watch, called the move “shameful.” The nonpartisan group Common Cause even pointed out that exactly 11 years ago, lobbyist Jack Abramoff ― whose crimes helped lead to the creation of the OCE ― pleaded guilty to charges including fraud conspiracy and tax evasion. (Abramoff told Politico Tuesday that Republican’s efforts to gut the ethics watchdog are “exactly the opposite of what Congress should be doing.”)
Members reported that they had started getting a flood of phone calls from constituents concerned that Congress was neutering a key ethics watchdog.
“The calls we’ve gotten in my district office and here in Washington has surprised me, meaning the number of calls,” said Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who noted before the amendment was stripped that he would vote against the rules package if it remained in the measure. “People are just sick and tired.”
Some Republicans, including South Carolina Reps. Trey Gowdy and Mark Sanford, were reporting Tuesday that they would vote against the typically party-line rules package.
Facing public pressure and an internal mutiny, GOP leadership called a special meeting and told Republicans they needed to strip the OCE amendment.
Leaders told members they would instead work with Democrats to come up with a proposal to reform the OCE before the August recess, though a number of Republicans were unsatisfied by the promise.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said he would now work to completely abolish the Office of Congressional Ethics, citing concerns over anonymous whistleblowers making accusations against members and the OCE leaking information to the press.
Asked to provide an example of the OCE leaking information to the press, King failed to come up with one and got testy.
“Just google it,” he said.
Pelosi issued a statement after the amendment was dropped, noting the “clear contempt for ethics in the People’s House” that she said Republicans showed with their plan.
“Once again, the American people have seen the toxic dysfunction of a Republican House that will do anything to further their special interest agenda, thwart transparency and undermine the public trust,” she added. “Republicans should remember the strength of public outrage they faced in the space of 12 hours as they scheme to do lasting damage to the health and economic security of millions and millions of hard-working families.”