DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In less than an hour, a new Congress will convene here in Washington. This is a moment Republicans have been waiting for. They have control of the House, the Senate and soon the White House. Already before they could even get on with their agenda, though, there is bickering within their ranks. House Republicans voted last night to weaken an independent ethics watchdog. This move would put the Office of Congressional Ethics under the oversight of House members themselves, namely the House Ethics Committee.
This still must be approved by the entire House in a vote expected today. This morning, President-elect Donald Trump criticized his own party. House Speaker Paul Ryan sought to put the best face on this, and let's talk about all of it with NPR political director Domenico Montanaro who's in the studio with me. Domenico, good morning.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So what exactly are House Republicans trying to do here with this vote last night?
MONTANARO: Well, look, House Republicans have been annoyed for quite some time that they have had a lot of anonymous complaints come up that go to the Office of Congressional Ethics - OCE as it's referred to - and they can investigate and House offices have to spend a lot of money looking at these complaints that they don't even know where they came from...
GREENE: They don't know where they're coming from. They don't...
GREENE: ...Face their accuser or anything.
MONTANARO: So what they tried to do was change how the office is structured, how it works, essentially weaken it, take a lot of the teeth out of it by putting it under the aegis of the House Ethics Committee basically meaning that the ethics of the House members would be ruled by the ethics - by the House members themselves. Now, Paul Ryan has been trying to thread a bit of a needle, split a very fine hair here and saying, look, this - first of all, privately he was against it, didn't want to have to go through with this, but now...
GREENE: But his own caucus voted for it, even though he was...
MONTANARO: His conference voted for it, so he's now backing it and saying, look, this is not weakening it. They are independent, still, but they'll have - but the Ethics Committee will have oversight. Boy, that is a fine hair to split for sure.
GREENE: What does oversight mean exactly? So why was his office created in the first place?
MONTANARO: Well, this all stems from a lot of the scandals happening in the mid-aughts to 2006 elections. You might remember that a lot of House Republicans wound up losing because of some ethics scandals in particular stemming from the Jack Abramoff scandals. And what the problem there comes in is that in 2008, they created this office, and they, you know, thought that they needed some kind of independence from the House Ethics Committee. And that's where a lot of this came from. Democrats have also been kind of annoyed by this office because of those anonymous complaints. They're not complaining today however.
GREENE: They're saying that Republicans are basically not draining the swamp as much as it was supposed to be drained...
GREENE: So one argument is that this is a waste of time. You don't get to face your accuser. The optics of this, though, lawmakers policing themselves is pretty terrible. And, I mean, it does seem to put Paul Ryan in a very difficult position at a moment when he is taking, oh - I mean, he's bringing his party into this new exciting year today in an hour.
MONTANARO: That's right. And, you know, to do this before even taking office is pretty remarkable, especially considering that John Boehner, the former speaker really did take ethics very seriously, ousted a couple of House members with very strong hard-line zero-tolerance policy. Paul Ryan says he's going to be just the same, but he's already taking, you know, some criticism from the new president-elect, Donald Trump.
GREENE: So President-elect Trump - he tweets, and let me just read a quote from a series of tweets this morning. (Reading) With all the 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?
What does it say that Donald Trump, you know, in his evolving relationship with the party that he's already criticizing them, you know, before they even convene the new Congress?
MONTANARO: Well, it's pretty fascinating. I mean, if you read between the lines of that statement, that's not exactly criticizing them saying that they should maintain an Office of Congressional Ethics. He's saying this shouldn't be the number-one priority.
GREENE: He said it was unfair, the current system.
MONTANARO: Yeah. And I think that there are members of Congress who would agree with that. But, on the transition call this morning from the Trump transition, they said that taxes and Obamacare should be their focus. They would have rather had that. This is clearly at the - at least a public relations disaster for House Republicans and for Donald Trump.
But, you know, Trump again here he's being able to try to use this as something to distract people. Again, he has - there's no oversight of his ethics as president of the United States. He hasn't released his tax returns. He hasn't set up how he's going to change the Trump organization to do anything to be able to show some level of transparency for his own ethics in office - still an open question.
GREENE: OK. NPR political director Domenico Montanaro in the studio with us. Domenico, thanks as always.
MONTANARO: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.