Full control, and the first thing they do is gut the independent ethics office?
Here’s something to put this in perspective for you. Back in 1995, when the Republicans took back the House after 40 years of Democratic control, on their first day in the majority, Newt Gingrich and his Republicans promised: to require that all laws they passed apply to Congress; hire an auditing firm to audit Congress itself for waste and fraud; cut congressional staff, and five other measures that, at least optically, told America they were interested in good government.
And now, today’s Republican majority dramatically does the opposite. Yes, there have been some complaints about the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), with at least one Democrat joining a chorus of Republicans, and yes, there was a partly partisan motive in its creation, since the Democrats brought it into existence after a major and disgraceful Republican fund-raising scandal in the 2000s that centered around Jack Abramoff. But please. It was also created because the reality, painfully clear to everyone at the time, was that the standing House Ethics Committee was doing nothing.
And don’t say that OCE did nothing. It opened up an investigation of Michele Bachmann that was part of the reason she didn’t seek reelection, a story The Daily Beast broke. Its probe into former GOP Congressman Nathan Deal of Georgia helped lead to his resignation in the House (he became his state’s governor, which isn’t the world’s most encouraging outcome, but still, the probe had an impact). An aide to GOP Rep. Paul Broun was forced to resign. But it wasn’t just Republicans. Here’s a list of OCE reports. It includes several members of both parties.
But only one party is trying to gut it. The effort may not succeed. Speaker Paul Ryan is against all this, they say, and was supposedly taken by surprise by the move. There will be a floor vote soon in the House, probably today. The Republicans voted 119-74 at a closed meeting of their conference Monday to, ah, “reform” the office. If those 74 Republicans are joined by most or all of the 194 Democrats, then this ploy will go down to defeat, and the whole business might be forgotten in a few weeks. But who knows? Tuesday morning on Morning Joe, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP majority leader, said that while he opposed the way his party went about this, he’ll vote for the overall rules package that will contain these changes to OCE.
Whatever happens, it shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s highly symbolic and a function of two realities.
The first is how the Republican Party has changed in the last 20 years, since the days of Gingrich’s Contract with America. Back then, Gingrich was at least aware that the Republicans had to make some effort to court independent and moderate voters. Republicans had been out of power in the House for so long that he knew he had to take some steps to persuade regular voters that the GOP deserved their serious attention. So while the right-wing planks of the Contract were its heart—the balanced budget, anti-crime and welfare crackdown proposals, among others—he got that he had to dress them in more neutral clothing.
But today’s GOP isn’t even bothering with that. Thanks to the aggressive gerrymandering of House districts, Republicans don’t have to worry about reaching out to moderates. They just have to keep the base fired up. It’s not so much that gutting the OCE fires up the base. Rather, it’s that they know the base won’t care, as long as Republicans follow through on repealing Obamacare and taking the other radical steps they plan on taking, all well laid out in a Washington Post piece Monday. If something like this troubles independent voters, that isn’t their problem anymore. Republicans no longer need their votes to keep their House majority.
And the second factor is surely the atmosphere and culture being created by Donald Trump, who has obviously sent the message that ethics aren’t going to count for much in his Washington. He scheduled a press conference at which he was going to discuss how he’d deal with his businesses as president, and then canceled it. He says that the president by definition can’t have a conflict of interest. People from the Trump Organization, according to reports, leaned on the Kuwaitis to move their inaugural parties from a competitor hotel to Trump’s. And so on.
The behavior of presidents-elect sends cues to others in Washington, especially the people in their own party, about how things will work during their tenure, about what will and will not be important. Candidate Trump said “drain the swamp.” President-elect Trump is proposing to fill the swamp with life forms rarely seen in modern history—Cabinet secretaries who in the main either oppose the mission of the department they’re going to run or have no clear relevant qualifications to lead it. Other Republicans notice this. And they certainly notice that the only thing he has to say about ethics is that he will be beyond questioning.
So Trump can do whatever he wants, and House Republicans can make their very first move of the Trump era this very Trump-like act. Why’d they do it? Because they believe they can. They believe their majority is impregnable. Sadly they may be right, for now. But that won’t last forever, and when the days comes that we’re able to name the reasons for the GOP downfall, this move will surely have a spot on the list.