Tweet from Trump brings House Republicans to heel

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republican Jason Chaffetz, texting "Our first move on ethics could not have been more poorly executed" before the swearing-in on Tuesday of the 115th session of Congress.
The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republican Jason Chaffetz, texting "Our first move on ethics could not have been more poorly executed" before the swearing-in on Tuesday of the 115th session of Congress.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Lawmakers reverse course on vote to curb independent ethics body's powers

WASHINGTON • The Trump effect has landed forcefully on Capitol Hill.

Less than two hours after President-elect Donald Trump criticised House Republicans - in a tweet, of course - for trying to gut an ethics investigative unit on the first day of business in the new Congress, those plans lay in a shambles.

The reversal came less than 24 hours after House Republicans, meeting in a secret session, voted to curtail the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent body created in 2008 after a series of scandals involving House lawmakers, including three who were sent to jail.

The House Republicans, led by Virginia Representative Robert Goodlatte, had sought on Monday to prevent the OCE from pursuing investigations that might result in criminal charges.

Instead, they wanted to allow lawmakers on the more powerful House Ethics Committee to shut down inquiries.

Lawmakers in both parties had seen the OCE as overly zealous at times, and there have been previous calls to rein in the team of former federal prosecutors who have overseen it.

House leaders attributed the reversal to many factors, not the least of which was a period of media coverage highlighting how the lawmakers were abandoning Mr Trump's pledge to "drain the swamp" of Washington of corruption.

But lurking behind it all was the prospect that Mr Trump's political power, now aimed at Capitol Hill, can instil fear and force action.

By aiming his social media fire hose on his fellow Republicans - even as he assembles a Cabinet filled with billionaires and insiders - Mr Trump made clear his intention to continue giving voice to the anti-establishment outsiders that propelled him through the Republican primaries against much more seasoned politicians, and to his victory against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

That may give him leverage over those members of the Republican Conference who have claimed the "outsider" mantle for the past six years, a period when the most conservative of them have gained stature back home by flouting the leadership.

These Republicans regularly turned their backs on party leadership and claimed ideological purity in their carefully crafted districts that were bastions of like-minded conservatives. They operated on the assumption that the only likely political penalty was a primary challenge from the right.

Now, their party's leader wields a Twitter account with 18.5 million followers. As he prepares to enter the Oval Office, Mr Trump is far more popular in their districts than they are. His chief strategist is the former leader of Breitbart News, a conservative media outlet that has included among its top targets the skewering of Republicans not deemed suitably conservative.

As a result, the first day of the 115th Congress served as some sort of a beta test of how some Republicans will react when Mr Trump sics his media power on them. If, for instance, the most conservative flank tries to buck the new president on a pricey infrastructure deal, how will they handle the heat from Mr Trump's Twitter feed?

On Tuesday, the answer came fast: Run for cover. "With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog... their number one act and priority," Mr Trump asked in a pair of tweets just after 10am, adding that there were "so many other things of far greater importance".

Shortly after, the Republicans hastily called a meeting at the Capitol basement and the matter was dropped before it could go to the full House floor for a vote.

Republican Representative Charlie Dent, a recent chairman of the Ethics Committee, said that members of the House GOP leadership mentioned Mr Trump's opposition to the OCE changes at the meeting, giving weight to reversing the decision. "That should be a consideration," Mr Dent said, explaining how leaders framed the thinking.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2017, with the headline 'Tweet from Trump brings House Republicans to heel'. Print Edition | Subscribe