If there was one unambiguous bipartisan message from the outcome of the November election, it was this: It’s time for business as usual to come to an end. Washington, we heard over and over again, has become too unaccountable to the voters and in the minds of many, corrupted by power.
Yet Monday night, behind closed doors, the House Republican Conference made their very first act of the new Congress an explicit rejection of that unmistakable message.
In a 119-74 vote, Republicans tried to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics, proposing sweeping changes to the independent body. True, less than 24 hours later — in one of the fastest and most dramatic political flip-flops in recent memory — the Republicans pulled the proposal. But the damage to the incoming Congress’s image was already done.
If House Republicans want to get back on track, they will need to treat this as a teachable moment on the lessons of transparency in the Age of Trump.
The new rules proposed by rank and file Republicans stipulated that the nonpartisan office be subject to oversight by the separate House Committee on Ethics, made up of members of Congress. It could not make public statements or examine anonymous complaints. It could not review any possible violations of criminal law. In other words, there was not a heck of a lot it could do.
Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy initially reportedly opposed the move (although Speaker Ryan on Tuesday issued a statement defending the vote), no doubt understanding the PR nightmare that would await them when it became public.
That nightmare came swiftly. Even President-elect Donald Trump weighed in on the tone-deaf move by members of his party: “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. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS,” Trump wrote on Twitter, using his hashtag for “draining the swamp.”
There is indeed a legitimate case to be made for what the Republicans did. There has been bipartisan grumbling about some of the Star Chamber-like qualities of the office since Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats created it eight years ago.
A number of members have been falsely accused of wrongdoing. Their political careers were jeopardized after investigations were announced and begun to great fanfare in the political press. In many cases, those accusations were found to lack any substance and were subsequently dropped, even as innocent members of Congress amassed hefty legal bills.
In many cases, the damage was already done, and the members’ exonerations weren’t usually covered at all by the media.
But I’ve had my own dealings with Office of Congressional Ethics and, without exception, found it to be thoughtful and deliberate. They take complaints and accusations of ethical breaches seriously. Their very strength was their independence. By contrast, too often in the past the House Ethics Committee has been reluctant to investigate its own.
That doesn’t mean the office doesn’t need reforming. Proceedings need to be made more transparent and should provide a better sense of due process to those the office investigates. Democrats seemed to agree with that as much as Republicans.
But in an era where bipartisan agreement may be rare amid proposals for replacing Obamacare and passing tax reform, why not try to forge a solution that Democrats could agree with? Why not do so out in the open instead of confirming the worst stereotypes about smoke-filled rooms in Congress?
The President-elect rightly called out House Republicans’ fecklessness and misplaced priorities over his favorite medium, leading to a near immediate repeal. The House Republican caucus would have faced never-ending ridicule by Democrats, government watchdogs and transparency advocates.
Republicans will have no shortage of legislative battles in the coming months that will test their unity and whether there are compromises to be made with the other side. It’s a shame that their first test on this front came up so short.