It is hard to overstate how lunk-headed a move it was for House Republicans to decide Monday night behind closed doors to strip the independent Office of Congressional Ethics of much of its independence. In one fell swoop, the GOP caucus gave rise to a number of story lines, none of which is positive:
- The House GOP abandons “swamp draining” before it even begins.
- Rank-and-file members undercut GOP leaders by ignoring their opposition to the ethics move.
- The House GOP gives a cudgel to House Democrats, although the latter had previously attempted to clamp down on the OCE, and even Senate Democrats, although they never even created an independent ethics office.
- None other than Jack Abramoff says the House GOP is out of line.
- And finally, the House GOP caves after two tweets by President-elect Trump question the timing of the ethics move.
The benefits to House members of this short-lived ethics coup are precisely zero. There was no constituency outside their own ranks clamoring for, or even tolerant of, such a change. It was criticized by outsiders ranging from the liberals at Common Cause to the conservatives at Judicial Watch.
The only thing they got right was dropping the proposal as quickly as they did, in the same way that holding onto a hot branding iron for one second is better than holding it for two.
There may well be reasons for making changes to the OCE. For example, allowing anonymity for those making allegations can protect them from retaliation, but it also opens the door for potential abuse by those who merely have an ax to grind. But you know what’s the right way to address a problem like that? Out in the open, over time, making a case that it’s a problem and needs to be corrected. Not in secret, as part of a bundle of changes that goes too far.
The question now, of course, is whether this tells us anything about how this bunch will manage its affairs in the future. It’s much harder for consequential pieces of legislation — on taxes, health care, etc. — to be produced in such a quick, quiet way. And the outcry over the proposed ethics changes, reportedly including large volumes of constituent complaints to members’ offices, began long before Trump tweeted his own mild criticism of them — meaning his influence in this case was more a case of jumping in front of the parade after it was already under way. But both perceptions to the contrary will live on until (at least) the next controversial matter on Capitol Hill.
All that said, if your New Year’s resolution was to be more optimistic (instead of, say, more skeptical and less cynical), perhaps this is the silver lining: After this episode, House Republicans will be freshly aware that it’s hard in a continuing, anti-establishment environment to get away with this kind of tin-eared self-dealing.