The speaker of the House may have a gavel, but that symbol of power seems to have nothing on the president-elect’s Twitter account.
On Tuesday, the first day of the new Congress, after public outcry and a critical tweet from President-elect Donald Trump, House Republicans were forced to reverse themselves on their surprise move to overhaul an independent ethics panel that the party had accepted just the night before.
The episode raises questions about what’s ahead for Speaker Paul Ryan in 2017 and whether the incoming president will continue to use his Twitter bully pulpit to shame members of his own party on Capitol Hill.
The trouble began on Monday evening when House Republicans huddled behind closed doors hell-bent on neutering the independent ethics panel in the package of rules that will govern the 115th Congress.
Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy urged them to leave it untouched at the beginning of the Congress, especially without having any input from Democrats—some of whom hate the panel more than those in the GOP. Not to mention, it would give the weakened Democratic Party a political bat they could happily use to bludgeon the GOP.
But rank and file Republicans were unmoved by the pleas from their congressional leaders and 119 out of the 193 who had gathered voted to strip the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) of some of its powers. The changes would have removed the OCE’s spokesperson, ended its power to start probes based on anonymous tips, and would have given a 10-person panel of lawmakers final say on whether to refer alleged wrongdoings to prosecutors.
The optics were instantaneously horrible for the party whose new standard bearer ran against corruption in Washington.
“We shot ourselves in the foot. Sometimes people have to learn the hard way,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) told The Daily Beast. He denied pressure from Trump derailed the effort because the optics, or politics, of the move were so poor. “I could see the headlines coming out this morning. I got up at 6 o’clock and turned on TV and said, ‘Yup, this is gone.’”
But Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill are claiming his tweets opposing the timing of the ethics overhaul are what caused the party to unanimously reverse themselves.
“We’ve never seen a president like this that has this kind of following, so it’s going to send some shock waves through Congress,” Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA), told a group of reporters off the House floor. “But this is the way he’s been able to communicate to the American people. I don’t expect that he’s going to change now.
“Being one of the first orders of business, it didn’t look like we were draining the swamp, and I think President-elect Trump highlighted that—that we should do things differently here,” Barletta said. “Congress’ approval rating isn’t that high so sometimes that opinion from the outside could be healthy.”
In theory, Trump should have nothing to do with the House rules package that needs to pass at the start of each Congress, as it doesn’t need a presidential signature. It’s merely a series of internal, many archaic, rules that govern House proceedings and lawmakers themselves, which is why many Republicans argued the incoming president’s opinion on it didn’t matter.
His allies beg to differ.
“He is the reason we have all the levers of the House and the Senate and the White House. We need to recognize that,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) told The Daily Beast. “We need to take his concerns, and in this case we did and we tabled this and all is good.”
With Congress constitutionally tasked with being the birthplace of the nation’s laws, some lawmakers are worried the process could become muddled if their policy efforts are stymied by a social media account run out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s why this latest Trump tweetstorm didn’t sit well in all corners of the Capitol.
“It’s unartful the way he did that; let’s see how it plays out in the future,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) told The Daily Beast, adding that he’s proud to have never sent a single tweet from his account. “There’s got to be a better way of communication, regardless of who is tweeting what. Twitter is a terrible way of communicating.”
After Trump won the headlines on the first day of the new Congress, Ryan got his groove back when 239 of his Republican colleagues voted to put him back in the Speaker’s chair (only Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) opposed him).
In that role he was finally listened to as he went through the drudgery of doing photo-ops with members of Congress and their families.
“Hands out of your pockets,” Ryan coached one shy kid.
“Left hand on the Bible; right hand in the air,” he repeated as lawmakers in both party’s dutifully obeyed before they posed for their official swearing-in pictures.
It seems the day ended for Ryan better than it began.
“We’re a diverse conference, but today we showed we are in agreement about who should be our leader and that hasn’t always been the case here,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) told The Daily Beast.
Curbelo added that he doubts Trump’s tweets will play an outsized role on lawmaker’s opinions going forward.
“We need to work with the executive where we can, and I think there’s a lot of room for that,” Curbelo said. “But we also need to stand our ground and be that check and balance that our framers designed us to be on the executive when necessary. So I’m prepared to cooperate and to hold accountable, and I hope all my colleagues are too.”