House Republicans reversed themselves Tuesday, dropping plans to gut an independent ethics office after broad criticism of the move, including from President-elect Donald Trump.
The decision not to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics came after an emergency conference meeting. In a surprise move a day earlier, GOP lawmakers adopted a rules amendment to put the OCE under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee.
The move effectively would have given the lawmakers themselves oversight over investigations into misconduct by lawmakers and staff. It also would have prevented more information from being released to the public.
In a tweet Tuesday, Trump called the ethics watchdog "unfair" to lawmakers but criticized House Republicans for making the move rather than focusing on more important policy. However, he held back any serious criticism of the plan.
Monday's House GOP action sparked immediate outrage, with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi calling ethics "the first casualty of the new Republican Congress." Many other Democrats slammed the move and tied Trump to it, saying that it showed his campaign pledges to rid Washington of corruption were already getting abandoned.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who introduced the amendment, argued that it would increase due process protection for House members. The GOP was set to vote on the package later Tuesday.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and top Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway defended the move on Tuesday, arguing that it would not undermine ethics in the House.
Ryan, who initially opposed the action, contended in a statement that "this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the office will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress."
"The Office will continue to be governed by a bipartisan independent outside board with ultimate decision-making authority. The Office is still expected to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public," Ryan said. "It will still investigate them thoroughly and independently. And the outside board will still decide whether or not evidence exists to warrant a full investigation by the House Ethics Committee."
Under the GOP move, ethics complaints from anonymous accusers would no longer have been accepted. The proposed rule also said that "the office shall be subject to the authority and direction of the Committee on Ethics."
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who helped to craft the Office of Congressional Ethics while a congressman, slammed Trump for calling it "unfair" to lawmakers.
Condemnation of the ethics move extended beyond Congress. In a statement Monday, Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, former top ethics lawyers for President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, respectively, called it a "serious risk."
"OCE is one of the outstanding ethics accomplishments of the House of Representatives, and it has played a crucial role in seeing that the congressional ethics process is no longer viewed as merely a means to sweep problems under the rug," they said in a statement released by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an ethics watchdog organization.