With an incoming president compromised by conflict-of-interest business dealings (and still refusing to release his income taxes) and a Cabinet composed of a Team of Tycoons whose financial scandals are waiting to erupt, House Republicans demonstrated impressive timing in their decision to eviscerate the House’s independent ethics office. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) in the wake of the 2006 Abramoff corruption scandal, a key component of her “6 for ‘06” pledge to “drain the swamp” of corrupt influence peddling on the Hill.
The Republicans’ quick decision to reverse course after the widespread negative reaction, including a Twitter-lashing from the President-elect, should not diminish attention to the significance of Republicans’ abortive frolic. Even though the attack on the OCE had a half-life of a half-day, there are important lessons to be learned from this comic misadventure. In politics as in medicine, the first rule is “do no harm,” but with its unprovoked, unwarranted and contradictory actions on opening day, House Republicans self-inflicted an avoidable injury that could well become emblematic of the newborn 115th Congress.
Not that the short-lived decision to repeal and replace the OCE is the lone example of GOP hubris and folly. Shortly after the election, the chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee proposed legislation to reduce benefits to the elderly, and the party leadership resurrected plans to privatize Medicare. Not to be outdone, a senior Republican in the House proposed eliminating the Appropriations Committee, trasferring its authority to the famously free-spending authorizing committees. (Both the appropriators and the Senate Republicans were astonished at this unworkable and utterly unachievable proposal).
But the OCE misadventure deserves special recognition. Admittedly, the OCE is not the most popular institution in the House; Democrats as well as Republicans have chaffed at its inquiries into potential official misconduct, and the ability of the public to file allegations with the OCE against officeholders has fueled its unpopularity on the Hill. For all the complaints, neither Speaker John Boehner nor Paul Ryan were willing to undo Pelosi’s post-Abramoff reform, recognizing the reluctance of the formal Ethics Committee to take action against colleagues except in the most egregious and indefensible of circumstances.
The attempted coup against the OCE was opposed by Ryan (and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy), but the GOP Conference members voted 119-74 to ignore their own leadership. This was no symbolic vote of protest, like the insignificant handful cast against Ryan (and Pelosi) in the speakership election, but defiant support for a substantive change to House rules that inadvertently confirmed the fears of many that the House (and perhaps the Senate) majority may be prepared to look the other way with respect not only to their own ethical violations, but to those of the incoming Administration. What does the anti-OCE effort say about the inclination of GOP hotheads to blow past their leadership on policy matters down the road?
The other startling aspect of the Republicans’ rapid retreat was the swift criticism the proposal elicited from President-elect Donald Trump. Those in Congress would seem to have “so many other things of greater importance” to do, Trump Tweeted, “do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog,” which he acknowledged might well be “unfair,” as their “number one act and priority?” The surprise decision by the GOP Conference also drew vigorous opposition from the conservative group Judicial Watch whose president observed it was a “poor way to begin draining the swamp.” What does the swift reversal say about the willingness of Republican stalwarts to defy the unpredictable Trump?
Anti-OCE proponent Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, had railed against the OCE’s alleged indifference to the legal rights of Members of Congress, an interesting observation from a chairman who refused to lift a finger to protect the rights of millions of our fellow citizens by repairing the severe damage done to the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. Goodlatte asserted that his proposed amendment “does nothing to impede” the independent office’s operation, an absurd and inaccurate description of the provision’s impact.
The aborted effort to cripple the independent ethics office raises questions about the willingness of key GOP legislators like Goodlatte to defy their own leadership. How will the Republican troops react when Speaker Ryan gives them direction on issues like the budget, tax reform, appropriations or the upcoming debt ceiling confrontation? If chairmen like Goodlatte are prepared to flout the Speaker’s will on a rule change, how will they act when confronted with real policy questions that have substantial policy and political implications? And how significant a role did President-elect Trump’s critical Tweet play in persuading rebellious Republicans to settle down and not ruin the day’s message of unity and strength with an avoidable error like weakening the effort to “drain the swamp?”
The interactions among the Republican leadership, the hard-edged Conference faction, between the GOP majorities in the House and Senate, and with the new Republican President will be carefully scrutinized as Congress settles down and begins addressing a litany of complex issues that may prove as challenging for unified government to resolve as they have proven for divided government over the past 6 years.