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US Congress Republicans reverse plans to gut ethics committee

US Republicans have withdrawn a proposal to bring an independent ethics watchdog under the control of Congress members. Criticism for the move came not just from Democrats, but also from President-elect Donald Trump.

After significant backlash, including criticism from Republican President-elect Donald Trump, US House Republicans retracted their plans to gut an independent congressional ethics board on Tuesday.

On Monday night, House Republicans had voted to significantly restructure Congressional ethics oversight in a close-door meeting. They proposed to move control over ethics investigations against House members from an independent commission to lawmakers.

The proposition was not just criticized by Democrats and transparency advocates, but also controversial among Republicans.

Trump: 'Focus on tax reform'

In a statement on Twitter, Donald Trump criticized House Republicans for the proposal, saying that they should focus on other issues. 

During his campaign, Trump numerously stated that he planned to fight corruption, specifically that he wanted to "drain the swamp" of Washington's political elites. Trump, who lost the popular vote against Hillary Clinton but won the electoral college vote, will serve alongside a Congress where Republicans hold the majority in both chambers.

After Trump spoke out, House Republicans called an emergency meeting where lawmakers voted to withdraw the amendment from a vote scheduled for Tuesday. A broad package of other rule changes proposed by Republicans will likely pass on Tuesday, including an amendment that would give House Republicans tools to punish Democratic lawmakers for staging a protest in Congress such as last summer's sit-in over gun control. 

Watch video 02:05

Miodrag Soric reports from Washington

Republican leaders against proposal

In all, 119 House Republicans had initially voted in favor of integrating the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) into the House Ethics Committee led by lawmakers. Meanwhile, 74 voted against it.

Republican House leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, had failed to sway their colleagues to vote against the measure.

Many House Republicans perceived the Office of Congressional Ethics as too intrusive. The restructured OCE would have be known as Office of Congressional Complaint Review and would have no longer allowed anonymous complaints against lawmakers.

Bob Goodlatte, a Representative from Virginia who sponsored the proposal, argued that the ethics watchdog would not be limited in pursuing its tasks under the new rules. "The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work," he said.

'Sweeping corruption under the rug'

Activists disputed Goodlatte's statements, saying that the new system would make it more difficult to hinder corruption. "We all know the so-called House Ethics Committee is worthless for anything other than a whitewash - sweeping corruption under the rug," Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters, said. "That's why the independent Office of Congressional Ethics has been so important."

Democratic Minority leader Nancy Pelosi said that the rule change would "functionally destroy" the OCE. The office was established under Pelosi's leadership by a Democratic House majority in 2008, after a number of corruption scandals had hit Congress.

"Republicans claim they want to 'drain the swamp,' but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions," the California Democrat said in a statement. "Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."

mb/rc (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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