President-elect Donald Trump went against his own party today when he criticized House Republicans for their move to diminish an independent House ethics agency. On the day that Congress opened, Trump tweeted: "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 may be, their number one act and priority." Trump said that GOP legislators should instead "Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS." DTS stands for Trump’s oft-repeated motto: "drain the swamp."
The ethics agency was put into place in 2008 after scandals involving influence-peddling sent three members of Congress and Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist, to prison.
After criticism of the move erupted among Democrats, and Trump’s tweets, Republicans decided to rescind the proposal that would have sharply curtailed the ethics panel. The backstepping began just two hours after Trump issued his tweets.
It was after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said that a vote on the issue was moving forward. McCarthy said he is opposed to the change but believes it should be done in a "bipartisan fashion." He said that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) created where "sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."
In a closed door meeting, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted 119-74 in favor of proposal introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) that would put the independent Office of Congressional Ethics under the control of the House, outraging Democrats and outside organizations.
Speaker Ryan was defensive, and broke with Trump. "After eight years of operation, many members believe the Office of Congressional Ethics is in need of reform to protect due process and ensure it is operating according to its stated mission," Ryan said in a statement. "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."
The independent ethics panel was created during Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as House Speaker and continued under Rep. John Boehner (R-OH). The proposal to change the panel would prohibit it reviewing any violation of criminal law by members of Congress, requiring that it turn over complaints instead to the House Ethics Committee or refer the matter to an appropriate federal law enforcement agency. Also, the ethics office would no longer accept or investigate any anonymous reports of alleged wrongdoing by members of Congress. Speaker Ryan and other Republicans opposed the change, but lower-ranking Republicans decided to go ahead with the gutting of the ethics panel. Democrats and Republicans contend that the panel often takes up matters based on partisan accusations from outside groups with political motivations, which means that members of Congress must launch expensive defense campaigns.
Trump’s close aide, Kellyanne Conway, was supportive of the change to the ethics panel. She told NBC’s “Today” show, "If a constituent has a complaint, they can still lodge that complaint." She added, "They just can't do it anonymously. And many of these people -- members and their staffers who have been under investigation -- they have complained about their due process rights being violated and compromised. They need protections, as well."
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