Update: As of noon on Tuesday, House Republicans have reversed course -- dropping the amendment that would have gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics from the overall rules package.


On Monday night, House Republicans — as their first major act of the 115th Congress, which officially convenes today — gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Er, what?

Remember that little campaign we had for, oh, the past two years or so? The one in which a businessman with no experience in elective office ran — and won — on a message that Washington and its denizens are corrupt and that the swamp needs to be drained?

Because this move seemed so totally tone deaf for that political environment, I reached out to a prominent Republican member of Congress seeking some explanation. Here's what he told me:

It is tough to vote to retain the OCE as currently structured when five members get up and recount instances in which they have been falsely accused of wrongdoing, publicly dragged through the mud, forced to spend $100 to $200k to defend themselves and then get a letter of exoneration from the OCE that no one in the media bothers to cover. Frankly if you check with the Democrats you will find many of them have experienced the same fate and feel the same way. This was a flawed creation from the outset that [Nancy] Pelosi strong-armed through Congress by a single vote over bipartisan opposition.

That argument is consistent with how Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway defended the decision this morning on TV.

The member of Congress, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, cited Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) as a case study on why the OCE needed to be overhauled. In 2009, the OCE began investigating an allegation that Graves had invited a witness who was friends with his wife to testify about renewable fuels in front of a House committee. OCE eventually cleared him of wrongdoing. (The Ethics Committee, which oversees the OCE, said at the time that the group may have acted improperly.)

Fair enough. Members of Congress, according to this member, believe the OCE was an out-of-control institution, making baseless, costly and damaging allegations against elected officials. Putting aside the fact that no one likes to have their every action scrutinized — hall monitors aren't exactly the most popular kids at school — let's take that assessment at face value for a moment: OCE was bad and something needed to be done about it.

How House Republicans decided to do something about it is still colossally dumb, politically speaking.

First of all, they gutted the OCE in a private conference vote — meaning that no Democrats were involved or forced to vote. (The measure will be rolled into a broader rules package governing the 115th Congress that almost certainly will pass on the floor later Tuesday.) If this frustration with the OCE was indeed bipartisan, why not get Democrats on board to support a proposal to change it? Why hold a private, internal vote before Congress is even fully back in Washington? In so doing, you hand Democrats — even those who might privately be supportive of the move to sideline the OCE — a chance to bash you as enemies of transparency.

Second, if the OCE is truly a rogue organization, why not make that case in public before, out of the blue, demolishing it on a Monday night in January? If OCE was/is truly as bad as members of Congress seem to believe, then couldn't the public have been convinced of why these changes were absolutely necessary? Or at least apprised of why these changes were being made?

“There was clearly a lot of rank-and-file frustration with OCE,” said one senior Republican member of Congress who opposed the move. “Many of the changes, like adding due process, are very positive; however, enacting the reforms in what looks like a partisan way was not the smartest way to make these changes.”

That so many Republican members — 119 voted for the proposal — didn't grasp how remarkably bad it all looks to a public already deeply skeptical of Washington speaks volumes about how sheltered many politicians still are from the constituents who elected Donald Trump president on Nov. 8. Regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of the OCE, the manner in which House Republicans scrapped it is remarkably tone deaf and should worry any member of the GOP about what's to come in this new legislative year.