Fort Worth, Texas-area Reps. Kay Granger and Michael Burgess voted against a controversial proposal that would have allowed Congress to control its own ethics oversight.
House Republicans conducted a secret vote on Monday night, just before the 115th Congress was set to begin, that would have removed independent oversight of the Office of Congressional Ethics.
The vote, which was 119-74 in favor of the proposal introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., drew sharp criticism from Democrats, government watchdog groups and some Republicans. President-elect Donald Trump criticized the decision’s timing, but not its substance, in a tweet on Tuesday morning.
“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 said in a pair of tweets. “Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”
A few hours after Trump’s tweets, House Republicans reconvened in the Capitol basement and reversed the decision they’d made less than 24 hours earlier.
“The headline was we were backing off ethics,” Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said after the meeting, implying that public pressure had played a role in reversing the decision. Brat also said revamping the Office of Congressional Ethics will likely be looked at in the future.
Before the decision’s reversal, Granger and Burgess said in an email with McClatchy that they did not vote in favor of changing Congress’ ethics watchdog, which has been criticized by both parties as politically motivated and slow-moving.
Rep. Roger Williams, a Republican from Austin, Texas, confirmed that he’d voted in favor of gutting the Office on Congressional Ethics in an interview with McClatchy.
“I voted that we need to take a look at it,” Williams said. “I don’t have any time frame, but I do want to fix it because it’s broken and you do have a lot of Democrats that will say the same thing. It’s a bipartisan situation.”
Williams supported the House Republican leadership’s decision Tuesday to abandon the amendment, saying it was badly timed, but he wants to change the agency in the future.
“I don’t know if it needs to be fixed today as opposed to later on, but it certainly needs to be fixed,” Williams said. “That’s another layer of government I don’t think we need. It’s important to get started on the things we need to do.”
Williams in particular has a vested interest in the Office of Congressional Ethics, as he is under review following a complaint with the office accusing him of a conflict of interest.
Williams sponsored an amendment that allows auto dealers to rent cars and use loaner cars that are under recall. The amendment, which took effect in June, was later modified to apply to dealerships with 35 cars or fewer to loan or rent. The Austin-based member of Congress owned a car dealership in Weatherford, just west of Fort Worth, for years.
In August, the committee was supposed to render a decision on Williams’ case but never did.
Williams contends that the Office of Congressional Ethics is politically motivated and that the complaint against him is being funded by the liberal billionaire activist George Soros.
“I’m one of the most conservative members in Congress, and when you’re really conservative you get attacked from the left pretty hard,” Williams said in a recent interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “If it was wrong, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Williams lauded the defeated proposal’s efforts to stop anonymous complaints, a move critics said would prevent congressional staffers from reporting misdeeds.
“It makes it more transparent. You get your due process, if somebody accuses of something you’d like to know who your accuser is,” Williams said. “But they won’t give you names of accusers and all that sort of thing.”
Williams acknowledges that the proposed ethics changes could make it easier for the ethics office to be used for people to punish political opponents.
“I guess they could,” Williams said. “I mean, this is politics and people have agendas. But I think this is a layer of bureaucracy we don’t need.”
If Goodlatte’s amendment had passed, it is possible that the status and timing of Williams’ ethics review could have changed.
Texas Republican Reps. Joe Barton of Ennis and Kenny Marchant of Coppell did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how they’d voted.
Marchant supposedly voted against the amendment, according to constituents who’d called his office.