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Congressman Shuster played role in House rules debate

Written by Jim Hook/Chambersburg Public Opinion | Jan 5, 2017 6:17 AM
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Photo by AP Photo/Public Opinion, Ryan Blackwell

(Washington D.C.) -- House Republicans did an about-face Tuesday on their plans to gut the independent congressional ethics board, and critics claimed their gymnastics brought into doubt their intention to "drain the swamp."

Republican members of Congress had voted 119-74 in secret on Monday to neuter the Office of Congressional Ethics and place it under House control. It is not a matter of public record how Shuster and other GOP members of Congress voted at the private meeting. A firestorm flared up from the public, Democrats and President-elect Donald Trump.

A spokesman for Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett, did not respond on Tuesday to Public Opinion's questions about how Shuster voted on Monday or Shuster's position on the issue.

Trump tweeted 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." He included the hash-tag #DTS, for "Drain the Swamp," his oft-repeated campaign promise to bring change to Washington.

Politico reported that during a meeting of House leaders at 11 a.m. on Tuesday Shuster "stood up to say Trump should not be meddling in internal House matters, according to several sources in the room. Shuster's spokesman Casey Contres denied that Shuster used those words, but acknowledged that he 'did express, however, the importance of separation of powers and Congress establishing these rules - not the executive branch.'"

Shuster, chairman of the House transportation committee, had endorsed Trump after Trump won Pennsylvania's primary. Shuster represents the state's 9th Congressional District, which includes Franklin County.

Leaders on Tuesday removed the change to the ethics board from the GOP-written rules package. The House approved the stripped-down package late Tuesday by a vote of 234-193.

In Monday's private GOP session, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, had argued against changing the ethics board, according to several news outlets. The leaders failed to sway rank-and-file Republicans, some of whom have felt unfairly targeted by the OCE.

"This debacle says it all, and proves the maxim: 'absolute power corrupts absolutely,'" said Art Halvorson, a tea party conservative from Bedford County who lost to Shuster in 2016.  "This is a travesty. The people need to know who they have 'representing' them."

The problem with ethics change may have been the timing and the secrecy. The issue may come up again.

Contres replied to Public Opinion on Wednesday that "Congressman Shuster agreed with Donald Trump's tweet, and Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McCarthy's position that those reforms should not be included in the rules package."

The AP quoted longtime Trump supporter Lou Barletta, R-Hazelton: "I don't think there was any problem with the merit of the policy that needed to be changed. I just think it was how it was done. The perception is not good."

Barletta said Trump's tweets at Congress are going to send "some shockwaves through Congress" -  and members should probably get used to it.

The Office of Congressional Ethics was created in 2008 after the Jack Abramoff bribery case and other corruption cases in the House, but lawmakers of both parties have groused about the way it operates.

In 2015 Shuster came under fire for his personal relationship with Shelley Rubino, a vice president with Airlines for America, who lobbied the committee he chairs. McCarthy had responded through his spokesman Mike Long: "It appears that Chairman Shuster has done what the House Ethics Committee would expect from any member in this situation." McCarthy oversees House chairmen.

Shuster sent out a press release on Tuesday, the first day of the 115th Congress. It said in part:

"The American people made it clear that they wanted a Congress and White House that will work together to advance ideas that will strengthen our economy and restore our powerful standing around the world. Today is just the beginning of what is going to be an important step forward for this nation.

"As chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I'm ready to work with President-elect Donald Trump to rebuild America's infrastructure. We are going to invest in our roads and bridges, modernize our outdated aviation system, and continue improving our waterways. President-elect Trump is also ready to work with us on destroying ISIS, and I appreciate the opportunity to serve on a committee that will be tasked with ensuring our military has the tools needed to do so.

"We are going to be a stronger nation after the 115th Congress passes common sense policies that will not be blocked by President Obama, but signed into law by our Republican Administration.

"This is an exciting day, and it is time to get to work."

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and Public Opinion Online.

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