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.
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.