House Republicans reverse course on ethics changes

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WASHINGTON (NBC) -- Facing fierce criticism from members of both parties — including President-Elect Donald Trump — House Republicans backed down Tuesday from an attempt to gut an independent ethics office that investigates House lawmakers and staff accused of misconduct.

The decision to scrap changes to the ethics office came during an emergency GOP conference meeting Tuesday morning, just hours after Trump fired off a pair of tweets criticizing the timing of the Monday-night vote by House Republicans to place the Office of Congressional Ethics, known as OCE, under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee.

Trump 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

Followed shortly by another tweet: may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS

It was a notably tepid response from a president-elect who ran on a campaign platform of ethics reform, pledging to "drain the swamp" in Washington, but a signal of how the issue was becoming a political distraction.

The proposed changes would have effectively defanged an office created in 2008 as a response to a rash of ethics scandals that plagued the previous, GOP-held Congress — and helped deliver Congress to Democrats.

If passed, the measure would've given the ethics oversight and investigative role to the lawmakers themselves and prevented information about investigations from being released to the public.

Members of both parties have privately criticized the OCE as overly aggressive and at times unfair, subjecting them to public complaints (and eventually expensive legal bills) that often came to nothing. That was the case made by a number of Republican lawmakers at Monday night's Republican caucus meeting, where a majority of members in attendance voted to adopt the amendment.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte's office said the amendment, which he introduced, was intended to increase protection of due process rights for House representatives or staffers under investigation and grant them more access to basic "evidentiary standards."

Trump's comments add to opposition from House Leadership to the move as well, and resounding criticism from ethics experts on both sides of the aisle.

Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as ethics counsels for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, respectively, in a joint statement called the OCE "one of the outstanding ethics accomplishments of the House of Representatives."

Undermining the office's independence "is setting [the House] up to be dogged by scandals and ethics issues for years and is returning the House to dark days when ethics violations were rampant and far too often tolerated."

And indeed, Democrats seized on the Monday night vote as evidence Republicans plan to "engage in the same corrosive and unethical behavior that led to the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics in the first place," as a spokesman for the House Democrats' campaign arm put it in a statement.

"This is a shameless way to start the new Congress and every House Republican should immediately voice public opposition - and ultimately vote against - these shady rule changes," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Spokesman Tyler Law.

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