House Republicans Change Course on Gutting Ethics Office

House Speaker Paul Ryan talks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on October 28. Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, right, are said to have initially disapproved of the proposed amendment to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Amid an outcry from President-elect Donald Trump and other elected officials, House Republicans have backed off on their short-lived plan to gut the almost decade–old Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

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As the 115th Congress kicked off on Tuesday, House Republicans held an emergency meeting and decided to drop the plan. Along with Trump, many Democrats and even some leading Republicans on Capitol Hill had criticized the GOP caucus for beginning the new year with a proposal to eliminate the organization that ensures lawmakers operate under rules of ethics. The proposal floated on Monday night had set off speculation about how things could change in the new Congress, as Republicans prepare to take full charge of Washington after Trump is inaugurated later this month.

On Monday night, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) had offered the amendment to eliminate the only independent ethics watchdog panel. House Republicans then adopted the measure as part of its new rules package in a 119-to-74 vote by secret ballot. Their plan would have stripped the agency, which oversees and polices congressional ethics by investigating anonymous reports of wrongdoing by members of Congress. Under the new rules, ethics complaints would have been turned over to the House Ethics Committee, which answers to party lawmakers.

By Tuesday morning, Trump split with his own party when he tweeted his disapproval of the changes, saying Congress has "so many other things of far greater importance" to make its top priorities. Throughout his campaign, Trump promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington.

Reportedly both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy initially opposed the amendment, speaking out against the measure at the private conference on Monday night, according to The Washington Post. But in a statement earlier Tuesday, Ryan defended the members' first substantial move of the year and vowed that the House would continue to hold its members accountable to constituents. "I want to make clear that this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the Office will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress," he said. "The Office is still expected to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public. It will still investigate them thoroughly and independently."

In the wake of corruption scandals that sent three members of Congress to jail, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute designed the OCE. In 2008, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi adopted the measure mandating the office, which since has provided transparency and accountability to the House ethics process. On Monday, she called the proposal "the first casualty" of the new Republican-controlled Congress.

Even Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, called the proposed change "shameful." Before the OCE was approved, Judicial Watch helped to push for an independent body to help handle ethics investigations of House members, and it is one of 17 groups and individuals who on Tuesday sent a letter to Ryan and Pelosi, now the House minority leader, expressing concern about the future of the ethics process in the House.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says the move to eliminate OCE was likely motivated by personal unhappiness with the agency. "It deserves the label: stupid," he tells Newsweek. "They've got all these issues on the table and they're trying to project the image of a party that's draining the swamp, and they've just opened a new swamp." Since the creation of OCE, some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had questioned whether the agency was used as political payback.

OCE must be reauthorized as House rules are adopted at the beginning of each congressional session. Since 2008, House members have done so with bipartisan support and minimal dispute. The full House is expected to vote Tuesday on its broader rules package.