Maine’s 2nd Congressional District Congressman Bruce Poliquin said Tuesday he was bucking his own party by opposing a proposal to gut the Office of Government Ethics, just hours before House Republicans dropped those plans under intensifying pressure that also came from President-elect Donald Trump.

The dizzying about-face came as lawmakers convened for the first day of the 115th Congress, an occasion normally reserved for pomp and ceremony under the Capitol Dome. Instead, House Republicans found themselves under attack not only from Democrats, but from their new president, over their secretive move Monday to immediately neuter the independent Office of Congressional Ethics and place it under lawmakers’ control.

Republican leaders scrambled to contain the damage, and within hours of Trump registering his criticism over the timing on Twitter, they called an emergency meeting of House Republicans where lawmakers voted to undo the change that was part of a rules package.

The episode, coming even before the new Congress had convened and lawmakers were sworn in, was a powerful illustration of the sway Trump may hold over his party in a Washington that will be fully under Republican control for the first time in a decade.

In a statement Tuesday morning, Poliquin, a Republican U.S. representative who was recently re-elected to a second term, said “the American People have spoken overwhelmingly in the last election in sending us here to fix the real problems facing our Nation” and “this is not their priority.”

“While there should be important reforms made to the Office of Congressional Ethics that both Republicans and Democrats agree on, such as ensuring due process, I opposed this proposal,” Poliquin said in the statement. “I believe it’s important that these kinds of changes to the ethics office be made in a bipartisan effort and after robust debate and discussion from both parties.”

Later Tuesday morning, President-elect Trump also criticized House Republicans for the ethics proposal.

“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,” Trump had asked over Twitter Tuesday morning in an objection that appeared focused more on timing than on substance. Trump, who will take office later this month, said the focus should be on tax reform and health care and included the hash-tag #DTS for “Drain the Swamp,” his oft-repeated campaign promise to bring change to Washington.

Democrats and even many Republicans were quick to point out that the lawmakers’ plans for their ethics watchdog flew in the face of that notion. The measure was part of a rules package that faced a vote in the full House later Tuesday and looked like it could fail after Trump registered his objections.

“We were elected on a promise to drain the swamp, and starting the session by relaxing ethics rules is a very bad start,” said GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California.

Said GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma: “People didn’t want this story on opening day.”

The independent body was created in 2008 to investigate allegations of misconduct by lawmakers after several bribery and corruption scandals sent members to prison, but lawmakers of both parties have groused about the way it operates. Lawmakers were especially incensed by an investigation of members of Congress from both parties who went on a 2013 trip to Azerbaijan paid for by that country’s government. Lawmakers said after the investigation was made public in 2015 that they had no idea the trip was paid for by Azerbaijan’s government, and the House Ethics Committee ultimately cleared the lawmakers.

House Republicans voted Monday to make several changes to the non-partisan ethics body, so it would fall under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers. It would be known as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and the rule change would require that “any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the members.”

The ethics change prompted an outcry from Democrats and government watchdog groups.

Maine’s other congressional representative, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, also decried the ethics proposal in a statement Tuesday morning.

“I think it’s absolutely outrageous that House Republicans voted behind closed doors to gut and severely weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics,” Pingree said in the statement. “It shows a complete disregard for the trust that voters have put in us. Members of Congress must meet high ethical standards to make sure that we are acting in the public’s interest and not our own — this nonpartisan office is critical in uncovering incidents where those standards are violated so lawmakers can be held accountable.

Once the ethics controversy was dispensed with on Tuesday, lawmakers in both chambers of Congress returned to the ceremonial business. As set out in the Constitution, both chambers gaveled in at noon, and as storm clouds threatened outside, the halls of the Capitol filled with lawmakers’ children, friends and spouses on hand to witness the procedures. The day had the festive feel of the first day back at school, as new arrivals roamed the halls with old hands, exchanging greetings and taking in the day.

In the Senate, seven new members joined those who won re-election in taking the oath of office administered by Vice President Joe Biden. The Senate will be controlled 52-48 by the GOP and includes two new Republicans and five new Democrats. They include Illinois’ Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee Iraq war vet, who walked to the dais and stood for the oath.

Biden remains president of the Senate until Trump becomes president Jan. 20. Then Vice President-elect Mike Pence will take over.

In the House, lawmakers filled the House chamber to elect their speaker, with Paul Ryan piling up the votes needed to retain the post, as expected. The House will number 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats. Among the members are 52 freshmen.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: