Less than 48 hours into 2017, House Republicans made their first serious misstep, handing Democrats an easy issue and highlighting President-elect Donald Trump’s greatest vulnerability. The Post reports:
Defying the wishes of their top leaders, House Republicans voted behind closed doors Monday night to rein the independent ethics office created eight years ago in the wake of a series of embarrassing congressional scandals.
The 119-to-74 vote during a GOP conference meeting means that the House rules package expected to be adopted Tuesday, the first day of the 115th Congress, would rename the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) to the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and place it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee.
Republicans insisted that the office needed to be “updated” to return it to its core mission of reviewing public ethics complaints for referral to the full ethics committee. They argued that it did not remove the responsibility of the office to review complaints, carry out investigations and make referrals to the ethics committee. However, there are good reasons that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) argued against it in the room, according to multiple sources. The action eliminates an independent office and substitutes one under the control of the very members it is supposed to investigate. (Foxes guarding the proverbial henhouse, critics will surely note.) The measure also disallowed anonymous ethics complaints, a key protection that allows staff and members to step forward without fear of retribution.
Reaction was fiercely negative. “This underhanded effort to gut the only functional ethics enforcement body in the House shows exactly why the OCE is so vital to keeping Members on the straight and narrow,” David Vance of Common Cause told Right Turn. “Time and again, the Ethics Committee had proven unwilling to hold their colleagues accountable.”
Likewise, two widely respected ethics gurus warned, via a statement from the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:
Undermining the independence of the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics would create a serious risk to members of Congress, who rely on OCE for fair, nonpartisan investigations, and to the American people, who expect their representatives to meet their legal and ethical obligations. As CREW and others noted in a bipartisan letter a few weeks ago, OCE is one of the outstanding ethics accomplishments of the House of Representatives, and it has played a critical role in seeing that the congressional ethics process is no longer viewed as merely a means to sweep problems under the rug. If the 115th Congress begins with rules amendments undermining OCE, it is setting itself up to be dogged by scandals and ethics issues for years and is returning the House to dark days when ethics violations were rampant and far too often tolerated.”
Separately, one of those experts, Norman Eisen, told Right Turn, “The House Republicans seem to be taking a cue from the leader of the party in their flagrant disregard for ethics. Also as in Trump’s case, this will come back to haunt them.” He reiterated: “The independent Office of Congressional Ethics is one of the gems of our system of checks and balances. I have talked about it with pride all over the world as an example of how to do ethics enforcement right.” As with so much else in the Trump era, the U.S. government is becoming part of the problem of institutionalized corruption and contempt for democratic norms rather than an example for other countries.
“The Republican effort to bring it under the control of the House Ethics Committee will destroy that independence and effectiveness,” Eisen predicted. “Moreover, the way this is being launched, with a sneak attack on a [holiday] night, contrary to the speaker’s promises of advance notice and transparency in legislating, is outrageous. If this is what one party rule looks like in the era of Trump, I do not believe the American people will stand for it for very long.” Although Ryan opposed the measure, this raises serious questions about whether he is going to lead or follow the poor judgment of his members.
Aside from the merits, this is just plain dumb, politically speaking. The Democratic National Committee was quick to jump on the issue. (“It should be clear by now that Donald Trump — already the most corrupt and conflicted President-elect in history — is betraying his promise to drain the swamp. Now Republicans in the House are following his example, attempting to cripple the independent entity that deals with ethics in Congress.”) By raising previous corruption cases (Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay), the Democrats remind us that corruption and self-dealing in the past have been the GOP majority’s downfall.
We should keep in mind two related issues. First, Trump has his own ethics quagmire, namely retaining (so far) his businesses and refusing to eliminate conflicts of interest and the potential for serial violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. One could crudely say that House Republicans now want a cut of the action from lobbyists, trade groups and industry representatives without the threat of public exposure. (This hardly gives one confidence that House Republicans will live up to their constitutional obligations and force Trump to divest himself of his businesses.) Second, this should be a warning to new members and those in swing districts: The GOP leadership is tone-deaf and will, if not checked by its members, lead the GOP over a political cliff. Hey, get rid of the ethics office! Repeal Obamacare but don’t come up with an alternative! Both moves are wrong on the merits and will set members up to be savaged either by Democrats or GOP challengers.
Surely, this is the sort of unforced error that will trip up Republicans. And the new Congress hasn’t even been sworn in.
UPDATE: Republicans have now backed down, dumping the proposed gutting of the ethics office. The move comes after Trump essentially threw them under the bus, tweeting that now was not a good time to see the “weakening” of the office — a characterization entirely at odds with the Republicans’ spin. This early debacle should be a warning to Republicans on several fronts. First, Trump won’t back them up when the incoming fire starts. Second, they are tone deaf, leading to group think in which they convince one another that something patently absurd is perfectly reasonable. Third, when the leaders try to sell “repeal and dawdle” to members, the latter should remember the incident and Trump’s willingness to let them twist in the wind.