Republicans drop plans to weaken independent ethics office
Trump and Democrats question vote to weaken body that investigates misconduct
Representative Robert Goodlatte had approved a curtailment of the US Office of Congressional Ethics. Photograph: TJ Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
Republicans have dropped plans to weaken the independent ethics office after widespread criticism and questions from president-elect Donald Trump about party priorities.
Republicans in the House of Representatives decided to strip the provision from a package of rule changes being voted on by legislators.
Mr Trump had questioned the bid to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics, arguing that tax reform and healthcare should be higher priorities.
In two tweets on Tuesday, the president-elect reacted to the closed-door vote of Republicans in the House of Representatives to put the independent OCE under the auspices of the legislator-run House Ethics Committee.
He 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. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS [drain the swamp].”
Transition team spokesman Sean Spicer was asked whether Mr Trump advocated strengthening the ethics panel.
“It’s not a question of strengthening or weakening, I think it’s a question of priorities and the president-elect believes that with all that this country wants and needs to have happen, this really shouldn’t be the priority,” Mr Spicer said at a news briefing.
The OCE was created in 2008 to investigate allegations of misconduct by legislators after several bribery and corruption scandals sent members to prison.
The proposed change – pushed by Republican Bob Goodlatte – would have seen the non-partisan OCE fall under the control of the House Ethics Committee, but it prompted an outcry from Democrats and government watchdog groups.
The rule change would have required that “any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the members”, according to Mr Goodlatte’s office.
House Republicans voted 119-74 for the measure.
Democrats, led by minority leader Nancy Pelosi, had reacted angrily.
“Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp’, but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
Others said the new system would have made it easier for corruption to flourish.
“We all know the so-called House Ethics Committee is worthless for anything other than a whitewash – sweeping corruption under the rug,” said Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters.
The OCE was created in March 2008 after the cases of Republican representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who served more than seven years in prison on bribery and other charges; Republican Bob Ney, who was charged in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and pleaded guilty to corruption charges; and Democrat William Jefferson, convicted of corruption.