House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., knew from the start that it was going to be a public relations disaster.
McCarthy argued in a closed door meeting on Monday night that it was a bad idea for the Republicans to make gutting the independent congressional ethics office their first move since taking control of both houses of Congress and the White House following the November election.
“I was one of the first to the (microphone) as to why I didn’t think this was the best timing to do it,” McCarthy, of Bakersfield, told reporters on Tuesday.
House Republicans ignored his counsel and voted 119-74 on Monday night to curtail the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. Only after President-elect Donald Trump and others criticized the move on Tuesday did Republicans hold an emergency caucus meeting and drop the plan.
McCarthy had been caught in a vise, struggling to defend the plan to reporters Tuesday morning on the one hand while emphasizing his personal opposition to the timing on the other. Some two hours later, House Republicans decided curbing the ethics office didn’t have to be their first priority after all.
McCarthy’s office would not immediately comment on his role in convincing his fellow Republicans to drop the idea, but at least one lawmaker characterized him as playing a major role in the emergency deliberations that led to Tuesday’s decision not to curtail the ethics office.
The House Republican decision to reverse course on sweeping changes to the ethics office came after Trump weighed in with his own feelings.
“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, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!” Trump tweeted.
Asked by reporters about the criticism from Trump, McCarthy said that he shared the president-elect’s view.
“I read the tweet and those are the same arguments I made last night,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said he’d prefer for House Republicans not to change the ethics system on their own – suggesting some Democrats also had concerns with the ethics office.
“Anytime you want to deal with some reforms it’s probably best to do it in a bipartisan manner,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy nevertheless attempted to defend the plan to reporters, arguing that criticism of it was overblown. He fumbled on details when pressed, though, saying at one point “I’ll have to go back and look.” He said there were concerns about ongoing ethics probes becoming public.
“Someone may be accused of something, that doesn’t mean they did it or not,” McCarthy said.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics was created in 2008 after scandals and complaints that the House Ethics Committee wasn’t aggressive enough in policing members of Congress.
The change would have renamed it the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and put the office under oversight of the House Ethics Committee.
The planned change was heavily criticized by watchdog groups and Democrats in Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“House Republicans showed their true colors last night, and reversing their plans to destroy the Office of Congressional Ethics will not obscure their clear contempt for ethics in the people’s House,” Pelosi said in a written statement Tuesday.
Rep. David Brat, R-Va., said House Republicans withdrew the planned ethics changes after media coverage helped fan intense criticism of the move.
“We were just getting calls,” Brat said. “Part of it is the headlines.”