UPDATE 10:45 AM PT
After special caucus, by unanimous consent, the so-called Goodlatte Amendment was killed. The House Ethics Committee will look at the issues here independently.
It is worth noting that sources in the House have confirmed that Speaker Ryan spoke out forcefully against the Goodlatte Amendment, and issued a statement with regard to the Goodlatte Amendment only in order to clarify how the House would deal with its implementation.
On Monday night, Republicans voted 119-74 to make the Office of Congressional Ethics less independent than it had been previously by putting it under the auspices of the House Ethics Committee. Here’s the proposal, according to the Washington Post:
Under the proposed new rules, the office could not employ a spokesman, investigate anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee, which would gain the power to summarily end any OCE probe….Under the current House ethics regime, the OCE is empowered to release a public report of its findings even if the Ethics Committee chooses not to take further action against a member.
This isn’t a particularly good move, politically or ethically. It smacks of corruption, even though it’s a relatively unimportant change, as National Review’s Jim Geraghty notes.
The message from the Trump administration has been mixed. Trump strategist Kellyanne Conway defended the Republican move this morning, while admitting that she had not spoken to Trump; Trump then tweeted his disapproval, stating, “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, health care and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS.”
Trump is right. It’s a mistake for Republicans to lead off by providing the appearance of corruption. Note that Trump isn’t chiefly concerned with the actual ethics of the OCE – he’s mostly concerned with the appearance of gutting it. But he’s not wrong.
There is a second question: is this the best way for Trump to deal with Republicans who disagree? The vote hasn’t passed yet – perhaps it would be better for Trump to make some phone calls behind the scenes to press Republicans to scuttle the effort. Instead, he went public in an attempt to garner personal support and demonstrate his power. That’s smart for him — he’ll get credit if the plan dies — but it isn’t particularly good for Republican unity around policy.
There’s good news to that and bad news. The good news: we can all see the sausage being made. Trump isn’t going to hide it when he’s in conflict with Congress, and we’re going to be able to determine who’s right, and who’s wrong.
The bad news: everything will be litigated publicly for the Republicans. Trump probably isn’t going to quietly negotiate when he disagrees, or when a bad headline appears. Rather, he’ll quickly leap to Twitter to share his thoughts, ratcheting up tensions with the Republicans with whom he’s supposed to be working, taking the most palatable public position while undercutting the members of his own party on tough issue fights.
On this issue, though, Trump is right. And Republicans should follow his lead.