WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump criticized House Republicans Tuesday for voting to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, arguing that tax reform and health care should be higher priorities.
"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 asked over Twitter the morning after the surprise and secretive move by the House GOP.
"Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!" he added.
Trump's comments came after GOP House members voted behind closed doors Monday to give lawmakers themselves ultimate control over the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent body created in 2008 to investigate allegations of misconduct by lawmakers. The office was created after several bribery and corruption scandals sent members to prison.
The ethics change, which prompted a furious outcry from Democrats and government watchdog groups, is part of a rules package that the full House will vote on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear whether Trump's comments might prompt lawmakers to try to undo the move — or whether that would even be possible.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had argued in Monday's closed-door meeting against making the unilateral ethics change, pressing for a bipartisan approach at a later date, but rank-and-file Republicans defied their leadership.
Members of the 115th Congress will be sworn in at noon Tuesday, setting off an aggressive campaign by Republicans who control the House and Senate to dismantle eight years of President Barack Obama's Democratic policies.
The 119-74 vote reflected the frustration of many lawmakers who have felt unfairly targeted by the OCE, but it was a setback for leadership caught off guard by the swift action.
Under the ethics change pushed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics would fall under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers. It would be known as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and the rule change would require that "any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the members," according to Goodlatte's office.
The dizzying about-face came as lawmakers convened for the first day of the 115th Congress, an occasion normally reserved for pomp and ceremony under the Capitol Dome.
Lawmakers would have the final say on their colleagues under the change.
Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, reacted angrily.
"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."
In a statement, Goodlatte said the rules amendment "builds upon and strengthens the existing Office of Congressional Ethics by maintaining its primary area of focus of accepting and reviewing complaints from the public and referring them, if appropriate, to the Committee on Ethics."
Before Trump's tweets on the issue, Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, spoke supportively of the move. She said she had not talked to Trump directly about the issue but that under the previous system there had been "overzealousness" in going after lawmakers. "We don't want people wrongly accused," she said Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
But others said the new system would make it easier for corruption to flourish under Ryan and his leadership team.
"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. The OCE works to stop corruption and that's why Speaker Ryan is cutting its authority. Speaker Ryan is giving a green light to congressional corruption."
The OCE was created in March 2008 after the cases of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who served more than seven years in prison on bribery and other charges; as well as cases involving former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who was charged in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., convicted on corruption in a separate case.
The package approved Monday also includes a means for Republican leaders to punish lawmakers if there is a repeat of the Democratic sit-in last summer over gun control.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.