By Lesley Clark and David Lightman
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Voters sent a strong message when they elected Donald Trump: Drain that Washington swamp.
But somehow plenty of conservative Republicans may be getting that memo only now.
A Republican bid to curb the clout of the House of Representatives’ independent ethics office collapsed Tuesday, amid a Twitter rebuke from the incoming president, strong pressure from top Republican leaders and perhaps a wake-up call from freshmen lawmakers that yeah, maybe voters should be heeded.
“You knew even last night this was going to be a bad idea,” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said of the secret, late-night vote Monday to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics by putting it under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee — essentially giving lawmakers more control over what some have criticized as an out-of-control organization.
Two hours after Trump tweeted and minutes before the opening gavel fell on a new Congress, lawmakers met in a basement caucus room and scrapped their plans.
The tweet was the first clear evidence of how Trump will try to influence a Congress where his fellow Republicans control the agenda. It also spoke to Trump’s media and political savvy: He didn’t oppose weakening the office but grasped the negative optics of making it the big story on Congress’ first day.
Indeed, though the measure was approved Monday night by 119-74 on a secret ballot, lawmakers on Tuesday were quick to distance themselves from it, some citing a flurry of phone calls from constituents worried about the move.
“We were just getting calls,” said Rep. David Brat, R-Va. “Part of it is the headlines.” He wouldn’t say how he’d voted Monday night.
Others said the optics were terrible: “It is the proverbial case of a fox guarding the henhouse,” Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said of the effort to put lawmakers in charge of ethics investigations. He called independent reviews “an essential ingredient to good government.” Sanford’s staff said he’d opposed the proposal.
The ethics office has been seen as an aggressive tool against corruption in Washington and there have been lawmakers on both sides interested in watering it down and closing investigations to the public.
Often those lawmakers have been its target. The House of Representatives in 2011 rejected a move to cut the office’s budget by 40 percent, a move offered by Mel Watt, then a North Carolina Democrat who had been investigated by the office and cleared of wrongdoing.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, who faces an ethics office review amid a complaint accusing him of a conflict of interest, applauded the reversal Tuesday but did not say how he’d voted Monday.
“Most people felt it was not the time to do it,” Williams said.
The ethics office is looking at Williams’ sponsorship of an amendment that allows auto dealers to rent cars and use loaner cars under recall. The amendment, which took effect in June, was later modified to apply to small car dealerships with 35 cars or fewer to loan or rent. The Austin-based congressman owned a car dealership in Weatherford, just west of Fort Worth, for years.
The office was supposed to render a decision on Williams’ case in August but has not.
Williams has blamed his opponents for the inquiry, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in a recent interview that “if it was wrong, I wouldn’t have done it.”
The office was created in 2008 amid a spate of congressional pay-to-play scandals and widespread sentiment that the member-controlled House Ethics Committee wasn’t doing an adequate job.
The independent ethics office acts as a sort of grand jury, making preliminary inquiries into ethics allegations against House members. If it finds reason to act, it refers cases to the House Ethics Committee. But members of Congress from both parties have chafed at the office.
Republican critics who say it is overly aggressive reportedly cited an 8-year-old ethics investigation into Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., as an example of why they needed to rein in the watchdog.
Graves’ fellow lawmakers eventually exonerated him, but not before the congressman had spent significant time and money defending himself against what he complained at the time were “frivolous, anonymous allegations.”
Graves’ spokesman, Wesley Shaw, wouldn’t say Tuesday how the lawmaker had voted on the proposal, but Politico reported that Graves “vocally supported” the change.
The changes proposed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would have prohibited investigating anonymous tips and prevented the staff from disclosing the findings of investigations to other government agencies or to the public.
Graves’ experience was cited as an example of how costly and damaging such investigations could become for members, even if the accusations are never proved.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., voted in favor of the changes and supported more oversight of the office, calling it a “broken agency that ignores the due process rights of the accused and is susceptible to subjecting innocent people to unfounded and political attacks.”
Yet Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C. — himself tied to an ongoing ethics-related federal investigation — urged fellow Republicans on Tuesday to abandon the rule change and to include Democrats in any proposal.
“It is my strong recommendation that we advance these reforms in bipartisan legislation,” Pittenger said in a statement. Pittenger’s spokesman, Jamie Bowers, said he didn’t know how the congressman had voted in the secret ballot on the issue.
Another member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation who is on the House Ethics Committee’s radar — U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows — told McClatchy on Tuesday night he’s OK with the issue eventually being pulled from Republicans’ agenda but that he’s not going to reveal how he voted in Monday’s private meeting.
“I don’t talk about how I vote in conference on any of the issues,” Meadows said. “I can say this: I trust the Ethics Committee to hopefully come up with a plan to make sure that everything is transparent and accountable. I believe they will.”
Democrats suggested they could be open to tweaks: Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., called the Monday night vote a “public relations blunder of significant consequences” but said he thinks that the overwhelming majority of members “detest” the office, citing its ability to harm members with the specter of an investigation.
“Five weeks later — when the board says this (allegation) is without basis and alerts the media — it’s not going to get front-page coverage,” Cleaver said. “The dog didn’t bite the man is not going to be a big story.”
Advocacy groups that have raised alarms that Trump’s reluctance to distance himself from his sprawling corporate empire could create ethical problems suggested that his approach had emboldened members of Congress.
“He has conflicts of interest galore, and I think House Republicans looked at that and thought, ‘If Donald Trump can get away with it, so can we,’” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen who helped set up the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008.
He said he hoped the flurry of attention would ensure the ethics office’s viability and perhaps aid efforts for the office to gain subpoena power.
“No doubt House Republicans were shocked by the public reaction and it gave House Speaker Paul Ryan enough to say, ‘Let’s not even start playing in this mud puddle,’” Holman said.