The 115th Congress got off to a very strange and troubling start this week with a surprise — and quickly scrapped — Republican move to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the watchdog agency set up in 2008 after a series of scandals on Capitol Hill.
The move also quickly set up a schism between congressional Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump as well as an apparent breakdown in communication between Trump and one of his own top advisors.
The bizarre series of events began Monday evening when House Republicans with no notice or debate approved a series of rules changes that would have ended the independent power of the OCE and place it under the authority of the House Ethics Committee.
Under the new rules, the OCE would have not been allowed to take anonymous tips, investigate criminal activity or share its findings with other branches of the government or the public. Taken together, the changes would have essentially eliminated the office’s ability to conduct independent oversight of potential wrongdoing by members of Congress. House Republicans backed away from that plan on Wednesday.
Still, it’s a very strange message to send after a campaign in which the party’s presidential candidate pledged to "drain the swamp" and clean up influence peddling in Washington.
On ABC’s "Good Morning America" on Tuesday morning, top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway defended the move. "Let’s make clear that you’re still going to have an Office of Complaint Review. In other words, it’s not like we’re taking away everything," she said. "Look, there’s a very ambitious agenda to push forward. The Republicans have been given the majority in the House and the Senate, most of the governorships, they’ve won over 1,000 state legislative seats under President Barack Obama's watch. So there’s a mandate there for them to make significant change."
But Trump on Tuesday took a different position, criticizing the move, on Twitter. "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"
Trump hedged his statement with the reference to the OCE being "unfair" but the overall message was a clear rebuke to House Republicans, led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also reportedly opposed the timing of the OCE move, preferring to wait until bipartisan changes could be made in the office.