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Politics & Government

House Republicans Back Away From Proposal To Weaken Ethics Panel

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And you'd be excused for feeling a little bit of whiplash if you're watching the opening hours of the 115th Congress. On Monday night, House Republicans voted privately to put the independent Office of Congressional Ethics under the House Ethics Committee, which they control. And that made it look like lawmakers might essentially be policing their own ethics. By the next day, none other than President-elect Donald Trump joined critics of this move. And very quickly, House Republicans reversed themselves. Let's talk with someone who is involved in all of this. It's Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania.

Congressman, good morning.

CHARLIE DENT: Hey. Good morning, David. Thank you for having me on the program.

GREENE: Well, thanks for taking the time. We appreciate it. I know the opening of Congress is a busy time for you.

So you're former chairman of the House Ethics Committee. You know a lot about how this all works. You voted against this move - why?

DENT: Yeah. On Monday evening, I mentioned to the Republican Congress that there were some challenges with this. And I cautioned the members about the ambiguity of one provision of the amendment in particular that caused me some consternation.

GREENE: What was that?

DENT: It was the one that dealt with it - that the office of - basically, the Office of Congressional Ethics would be subject to oversight by the Committee on Ethics...

GREENE: Which would make it look like lawmakers basically handling their own policing of ethics.

DENT: Well, we do handle our own policing to be perfectly candid. And I think there is a lot of confusion about what the Office of Congressional Ethics does. It's an entity that can receive complaints from the public or anybody about members of Congress or staff. And what they do then is they can, you know, review the matter within certain timelines and then refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee, which I had the chair.

And they can only ask for two things. They can say that matter should either - they can recommend that the matter be further reviewed or dismissed. That's all they can do. They cannot sanction anyone. Only the Committee on Ethics can do that with members of Congress. Now that said, I cautioned members about this amendment, particularly that one provision - that, you know, it was unclear. It was ambiguous. It could have - and I wasn't quite sure what the intent was. And more importantly, I don't know how it would have been implemented, you know, based on what I read in the amendment. And...

GREENE: And it didn't look that good either. I mean, it - was that part of your concern?

DENT: Well, yeah - there's the perception, too. Looks like - you know, the perception was that, you know - that Congress was taking over the Office of Congressional Ethics and that...

GREENE: What were your colleagues thinking? I mean, even if you say you don't know their motive necessarily, what were they telling you?

DENT: Well, look, I know what - well, I certainly know what the motive was. There were members of Congress who felt that that office, you know, wasn't always treating them fairly. And they wanted that - they felt that only members of Congress should be dealing with their ethical situations. In fact, the Senate has no similar entity this year where that - the Senate has no outside organization that takes complaints and filters them and then sends them over to the Senate Ethics Committee. This is only a House phenomenon.

GREENE: Yeah. Both parties in the House, when this was created, sort of celebrated that they were taking a good move to deal with this.

DENT: While there was some celebration to be sure, there were also those on both sides who were critical. And, you know, there are other changes in that amendment, I should note, that were, I'll say, more procedural. Well, one of the changes would have given the Office of Congressional Ethics more time to complete what they call the preliminary review. It would give them more time to complete a second-phase review, so they would have gotten additional, you know, 30 days to 60 days.

GREENE: If I may - we don't have a whole lot of time.

DENT: Yeah.

GREENE: I want to move to the President-elect Trump.

DENT: Sure.

GREENE: How big a deal was his criticism yesterday when the party members got together and decided to reverse this?

DENT: I thought it was a factor. I won't say it was the determining factor. I felt that the leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy in particular both felt that they didn't want to start off this Congress, you know, on an unethical issue like this. I really felt that they wanted to focus on more substantive policy matters and that this would be a, you know, terrible distraction. And they're right.

GREENE: And also maybe it looked like you were sort of having a difference with a Republican White House, a soon-to-be Republican White House.

DENT: Yeah, that too. That, too - there's no question. I think it had an impact, but I don't think it was the deciding impact. I really do think it was the speaker and the leader wanting to, you know, start the year off on a clean slate without this kind of a distraction. I think the tweet had an impact, but that wasn't the determining factor.

GREENE: Let me just ask you about Paul Ryan. From the outside, doesn't look like the best day for him. He did not want this move. Then he sort of seemed like he was defending it, trying to back up members of the party. But then the president sends this tweet and basically the party backs away. I mean, is that a problem at a time when all of you in Congress in this party are going to, at times, have to, you know, potentially stick up to this White House?

DENT: Oh, I said all of them. They are going to be days when we will agree with Donald Trump, and we will help him, support him in those efforts. And there are going to be days where we disagree with him. And on those days where we disagree with him, you know, we have to certainly demonstrate that we can check him, and we must. And I've always said - you know, we're members of Congress. We're not potted plants. We are - there are separations of powers, and we're - there are going to be days where we disagree with the executive branch. And that's not something that we should be too concerned with. I mean...

GREENE: All right.

DENT: ...There'll be areas of agreement. You know, I think a lot of us do want to work with him on tax reform and maybe an infrastructure program.

GREENE: OK.

DENT: There may be differences on some other issues, perhaps on Russia and other areas of foreign policy.

GREENE: All right, we'll have to leave it there. We're out of time.

Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, thanks so much.

DENT: Thank you, David. All right, take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.