How The GOP’s Secret Gambit To Gut Ethics Oversight Died In Less Than A Day

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On Monday night, in a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill a handful of Republican members rose and told their stories about how the Office of Congressional Ethics had personally hurt them.

“Some really good people have been hurt,” Rep. Peter King (R-NY) recounted later.

“One member talked about how … it costs his staffer $30,000 and it cost him $60,000 and they did nothing wrong. They were found innocent, but at the end of the day, it cost,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA), describing the meeting. “Many felt very passionately about it especially those who were found to have done nothing wrong.”

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) said the he had actually fought to abolish the OCE, but it became clear that the conference was interested in moving forward with an amendment being pushed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) (pictured) to drastically shrink the reach of the Office of Congressional Ethics– a watchdog born out of the mid-aughts Abramoff scandal and a hallmark of the reforms made by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

The move Monday night was part of an effort by House Republicans to overhaul the independent body. Goodlatte proposed moving it under the umbrella of the House Committee on Ethics. While the OCE has the ability right now to investigate members independently, the change being pushed Monday provided that only the congressionally-controlled Ethics Committee could allow such investigations to move forward. Essentially, the OCE was on the cusp of losing its ability to investigate members freely.

House Republican leaders warned vehemently against making the change, warning that it could be politically risky at the beginning of a new Congress. In the end, members ignored those warning and it passed 119 to 74.

Then the news started breaking Monday night.

“House Republicans vote behind closed doors to gut ethics office ahead of new Congress,” the Los Angeles Times headline read. “House GOP Guts Ethics Panel,” CNN wrote. By Tuesday morning, it had become the story of the new Congress.

What Republican leaders had feared – that the first day of the new Republican-controlled Congress would be overshadowed with ethics questions– unfolded rapidly. By the morning, the ethics questions was all that reporters were asking about. In a session with reporters House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tried to defend the change, noting every chance he got that he was vocally opposed to it in the closed door meeting Monday. That confession left one reporter to ask, “If you did really oppose it why weren’t you able to stop it? Doesn’t that suggest that you’re very weak leaders of the conference?”

“Man,” McCarthy responded. “Welcome back.”

The pressure kept on coming. Republican leaders were accused of losing control of their conference or worse not caring much at all about gutting an independent ethics body in the first place. Republicans– even those who had supported the plan– said they’d been taken aback by the controversy they’d stirred and they admitted the timing might have been a bit off.

“I think it’s just a timing issue,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). “There are other things that we have to do today and tomorrow and it’s not worth dwelling on.”

Several members who talked with TPM said constituents were angry.

“Tons were upset,” Rep. David Brat (R-VA) said of his constituents. “They read the press headlines and thought we were shrugging our duties on ethics.”

Making matters even more complicated, Republican President-elect Donald Trump weighed in. He tweeted that he’d wished that Republicans would focus on repealing Obamacare and tax reform instead of making changes to OCE (even though he did note that OCE may be unfair.)

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

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017

With Trump’s tweets, McCarthy admitted the rules package overall might actually be in danger of passing and that “it very well could” affect the way the conference voted.

“If the president-elect tweets, could that affect people? Yes,” McCarthy said.

While a majority of the Republican conference had supported the change to OCE on Monday night, they had done so under the auspices of a secret ballot. Unless a member told the press, no one knew how they had voted. Suddenly, there was controversy and the looming rules package vote would put them on the record, publicly.

At 11:50 a.m. ET. Republican leaders held an emergency conference meeting to discuss the future of the OCE rules change. In the meeting, members who talked with TPM said, it became clear there was only one choice. The rules change to OCE had to go.

“I think leadership maybe came to the conclusion then that enough Republicans had lost their nerve– because of all the criticism– that the rules package might fail and they couldn’t take the risk,” Rep. Steve King said.

And even if the rules package survived, leadership reiterated their concerns from the night before that passing an ethics change of this magnitude on the first day of Congress could send a powerful and politically dangerous message that instead of draining the swamp, Republicans were trying to shield themselves.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) said part of the change of heart in the conference had to do with the fact that more people showed up for the Tuesday emergency meeting than had been there Monday night when some members were still en route back to the Capitol.

“I think the full conference was there today and the conference voted its will,” Wagner said.

Members in the meeting said that Republicans voted by a unanimous consent agreement to take the OCE change out of the rules package.

Members in the meeting said no one objected.

“”There was no drama,” Wagner said.

Even Steve King, who said he opposed taking it out, felt there was nothing to do to stop leadership’s move.

The entire ethics rules drama was short-lived, but the kind of high-octane and high-profile fight that leaders likely wanted to avoid on their first day back. The incident also revealed how involved President-elect Trump might be in the day to day happenings on Capitol Hill. It’s impossible to know how Trump’s tweet influenced members. The range of opinions on the Hill ranged from not at all to entirely.

“I could have told you last night when we left this would be undone,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) told reporters Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill when asked if he thought Trump’s tweet had any effect on Republicans’ decision to pull the rules change.

Rep. Pete King (R-NY) said it had been a combination of factors.

“The fact that there was the backlash, the fact that Trump weighed in and the fact that this is what Paul and Kevin said last night was going to happen,” Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lauren Fox is a reporter at Talking Points Memo.
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