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House GOPs Scrap Ethics Office Changes After Outcry

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) talks with Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill on Jan. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Just as quickly as the GOP plan to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics was on, it was off again — a move cheered by the incoming chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee.

After outcry over the Monday vote on Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) amendment to the House rules package, Republicans called an emergency meeting shortly before noon today.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had opposed the caucus move, which passed 119-74 in a closed-door vote the night before the 115th Congress gaveled into session, yet stressed this morning that the amendment wouldn’t “interfere with the office’s investigations or prevent it from doing its job.” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) opposed the timing of the amendment, but said he would vote for the full rules package regardless.

President-elect Trump weighed in before the GOP caucus went into today’s special meeting: “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!” he tweeted.

Goodlatte argued that the amendment “improves upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.”

It would have moved the Office of Congressional Ethics under the oversight of the Ethics Committee and renamed it the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, Goodlatte’s office said in a summary. Permission would be needed from the Ethics Committee members to refer cases of criminal wrongdoing to law enforcement. The amendment also “bars the consideration of anonymous complaints” and “provides protections against any disclosures to the public or other government entities” about investigations, including banning the office from employing a communications director.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) told reporters after today’s closed-door scrapping of the amendment that GOPs “shot ourselves in the foot.”

“I could have told you last night when we left this would be undone by the time the rules package came up,” Simpson said. “Because I could see the headlines coming out this morning.”

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) said the amendment was “not a good headline when it comes to messaging.”

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) told CNN that McCarthy let lawmakers know the rules package containing the Goodlatte amendment didn’t have the votes.

The incoming chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), said in a statement that she applauded the decision to strip the OCE language from the rules package.

“Many of these reforms are worthy of discussion and debate… I am committed to working with my colleagues on the House Ethics Committee to come to a bipartisan agreement on a path forward,” Brooks said. “Together, we can preserve the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics, maintain the highest ethical standards of the House, and ensure that the American people are informed.”