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Trump breaks ranks with Republicans on move to gut ethics body

US President-elect Donald Trump broke with Republican lawmakers on Day One of new congress, slamming their move to gut an independent office that investigates ethics violations by members.

world Updated: Jan 03, 2017 22:56 IST
Yashwant Raj
US President-elect Donald Trump talks to reporters as he and his wife Melania Trump arrive for a New Year's Eve celebration with members and guests at the Mar-a-lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida on December 31.
US President-elect Donald Trump talks to reporters as he and his wife Melania Trump arrive for a New Year's Eve celebration with members and guests at the Mar-a-lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida on December 31. (Reuters)

US President-elect Donald Trump broke with Republican lawmakers on Day One of new congress, slamming their move to gut an independent office that investigates ethics violations by members, their aides and staff of the House of Representatives.

“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!” Trump wrote in a pair of tweets.

He signed off with “#DTS”, a reference to his election promise of ethics reforms to “drain the swamp”, to end the influence of special interests and lobbyists in Washington, of which reforming congress was to be a critical part.

It was not immediately clear if House Republicans would persist with the vote, after the oath of office by the most ethnically diverse House in US history, despite this unequivocal rebuke from the president-elect himself. Other party leaders such as Speaker Paul Ryan have also opposed the move.

The decision to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent office comprised of private citizens — not elected lawmakers — was taken in a vote at a closed-door conference of Republican members of the House Monday.

The OCE was created in 2008 by Democrats, who controlled the House then, in the aftermath of a corruption scandal involving DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a Republican party lawmaker and several congressional and White House officials.

The House’s own ethics committee, drawn from members of the chamber, was found too timid to move on complaints about against other members and their aides. The OCE, comprising private citizens, would be more vigilant, it was argued.

So it was, to the frustration of those it investigated. The office was empowered to act on its own on a tip from the public or news reports, investigate it and then give a report to the House ethics committee for further actions.

The House Ethics Committee could reject the findings, and not act on them at all. But it was required to make the OCE report public, which in itself was sufficient deterrent for the committee to not seem to be too quick to dismiss the charges, and members.

Republican lawmakers now intend to rename the OCE as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, prohibit it from acting on anonymous tips and conduct investigation under close supervision of the House ethics committee.

“Poor way to begin draining the swamp,” Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, said on Twitter, adding, “Swamp wins with help of @SpeakerRyan, @RepGoodlatte (Representative Robert Goodlatte, who proposed the change).”

Nancy Pelosi, leader of House Democrats, said in a statement, “Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp’, but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”

With the move being slammed from all quarters for running counter to Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp”, it was only a matter time before the president-elect himself jumped in himself. And he did, with a sharp rebuke.