House Republicans were forced into a humiliating climbdown on Tuesday after Donald Trump tweeted criticism of their move to gut an independent congressional ethics watchdog.
Members ditched their plan to severely weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) at an emergency meeting just before the start of a new legislative session on Capitol Hill in Washington.
The original rule change, carried out without warning and behind closed doors, had provoked a fierce backlash from Democrats and transparency activists when first announced on Monday night.
But it was flexing of muscles by the president-elect that appeared to force Republicans to cave in. “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,” he tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”
Trump added the hashtag #DTS, for his campaign slogan “drain the swamp”.
His team confirmed it was the timing, not the reform itself, that had irked the president-elect. His incoming press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters: “He says their focus should be on tax reform and healthcare. It’s not a question of strengthening or weakening, it’s a question of priorities.”
Even before Trump’s tweet, many House Republicans, including top leaders, opposed the measure and worried about its ramifications, the Associated Press reported.
At the subsequent emergency meeting, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who had opposed the timing of the decision, reportedly offered a motion to restore the current OCE rules which was accepted by members. The House will instead study changes to the office ahead of a deadline in August.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma said: “People didn’t want this story on opening day.”
The abrupt reversal was welcomed by Democrats – but with a note of scepticism. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said: “House Republicans showed their true colours last night, and reversing their plans to destroy the Office of Congressional Ethics will not obscure their clear contempt for ethics in the people’s house.
“Once again, the American people have seen the toxic dysfunction of a Republican House that will do anything to further their special interest agenda, thwart transparency and undermine the public trust.”
Government accountability groups also expressed caution. Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said: “The Office of Congressional Ethics is the only independent check on the House of Representatives. Without it we would return to a Congress awash in scandal.
“We’re glad that the House Republicans listened to the public outrage about this proposal and came to their senses to reverse it – and not end real ethics enforcement in Congress.”
Morris Pearl, chairperson of the campaign group Patriotic Millionaires, added: “While it is a relief to see that better heads have prevailed against this egregious proposal, this needs to be seen as warning shot across the bow of American democracy. We cannot and will not let politicians of any party function without accountability to the American electorate.”
The U-turn marked a public relations disaster for the party on a day when it hoped to hit the ground running with an ambitious agenda that includes dismantling Barack Obama’s healthcare policy. Republican senator Mike Enzi introduced a resolution allowing for the repeal of Obamacare on Tuesday, his office said in a statement.
The ethics office U-turn handed Trump a victory in what may prove a battle of wills over the next four years.
It is not the first time that Trump, a billionaire businessman often described as an outsider who mounted a “hostile takeover” of the Republican party, has been at odds with its rank and file. His intervention came on the day that the 115th Congress convened with Republicans in control of both chambers, hoping that the president will prove willing to sign long-planned bills into law.
But on the OCE issue Trump did appear aligned with McCarthy and the House speaker, Paul Ryan, who had both urged their colleagues during the closed-door meeting to vote against the idea, arguing that it should be done later and on a bipartisan basis.
Both men then appeared to defend the move on Tuesday morning – “The office is still expected to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public. It will still investigate them thoroughly and independently,” Ryan said – only for it to collapse at the emergency meeting, fuelling a sense of confusion and chaos before Trump is even inaugurated.
The OCE was conceived in 2008 to investigate allegations of misconduct after a series bribery and corruption scandals that resulted in three members being sent to jail.
The Republicans’ plan would have barred the OCE from considering anonymous tips about potential ethics violations, seen by critics as a potential deterrent to whistleblowers, and would have meant the OCE would have fallen under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers. It would have been known as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and 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 the office of Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia who pushed for the change. Lawmakers would have had the final say on their colleagues under the change.
During the nomination process for Ryan as speaker and Pelosi as minority leader in the House on Tuesday, many Democrats said they were voting for Pelosi because “the people’s house should be ethical, accountable and open to free debate”. One said: “We should read the bills before we pass the bills.” There were heckles from Republicans.
Ryan won the election for speaker with 239 votes, while Pelosi notched 189. Republican Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney, who won her father’s old House seat in Wyoming, sat beside him in the crowded chamber, which included some members’ young children.
Meanwhile, addressing the Senate for the first time as minority leader, Chuck Schumer, of New York, implored Trump not to abandon the promise of change that helped elect him.
“Making America Great Again requires more than 140 characters per issue,” Schumer said of the president-elect’s habit of sparking outcry with a single tweet. “With all due respect, America cannot afford a Twitter presidency.”
He added: “On January 20, we won’t be in reality TV — we’ll be in reality.”
Vice-president Joe Biden, who also serves as the president of the Senate, presided over the swearing in ceremony for a historic class of new senators. Among them were Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada, who is the first Latina senator, Kamala Harris, of California, the first Indian American senator, and Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois, an Iraq war veteran.
The new Congress is among the most racially diverse in history, owing in large part to the minority party which represents the majority of racial, gender and religious diversity.
Republicans hold a 52-48 edge over Democrats in the Senate and 241-194 advantage in the House.