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. In addition, members of Congress were inundated with calls and complaints from the public, which may have played a part.
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, a Republican, said: “People didn’t want this story on opening day.”
Later McCarthy, walking through the Capitol building with an ice cream, was questioned about the climbdown. “I just thought when you look at the taskforce about the reforms that are needed, it’s better to do it bipartisan,” he said. “It was with unanimous consent.”