Stung by instant and overwhelming outrage at the audacity of their plan to gut the oversight authority of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, House Republicans have reversed course.
But don’t think that Tuesday’s decision to maintain existing OCE rules means that House Republicans have suddenly embraced ethics and transparency.
The swamp remains. And it has some powerful defenders in DC.
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump pledged that he would “drain the swamp” in Washington. The president-elect’s cabinet picks suggest he has experienced a change of heart with regard to his promise to crack down on special-interest corruption of the governing process. Instead of draining the swamp, Trump is stocking it with bottom feeders.
House Republicans are, for the most part, fine with that. They’ve been diving into the swamp for years, and they have never been excited about the drainage project.
House Speaker Paul Ryan—the Wall Street errand boy who regularly abandons conservative principles and ideals in order to support bank bailouts and crony capitalism, the self-absorbed careerist who willingly sacrifices the honor of the Republican Party in order to remake “the party of Lincoln” as “the party of Trump”—has a sordid history of abandoning the high road at the first hint that doing what’s right might impinge on his relentless pursuit of personal and partisan power.
In late December, Bloomberg Politics revealed that Ryan and his Republican colleagues were plotting to attack transparency by punishing members of the House who livestream activity on the House floor. Proposing fines and ethics inquiries as tools to prevent members from broadcasting reports of protests—such as last summer’s 25-hour sit-in by Democrats protesting the refusal of Ryan and Republican leaders to allow honest debate on gun policy—the speaker and his allies reportedly developed a plan that Bloomberg revealed could hit members with “a $500 fine through deductions to their paychecks for a first offense of using electronic photography or audio or visual recording, as well as for broadcasting from the chamber’s floor. A $2,500 fine would be leveled for the next such offense and each subsequent violation.”
This week, the House Republican assault on transparency and ethical behavior got even swampier. The House Republican Caucus—moving at the behest of Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia)—voted Monday to effectively gut oversight by severely weakening the Office of Congressional Ethics. “The office currently has free rein, enabling investigators to pursue allegations and then recommend further action to the House Ethics Committee as they see fit,” Politico reported. “Now, the office would be under the thumb of lawmakers themselves. The proposal also appears to limit the scope of the office’s work by barring them from considering anonymous tips against lawmakers. And it would stop the office from disclosing the findings of some of their investigations, as they currently do after the recommendations go to House Ethics.” Under the GOP plan, the Office of Congressional Complaint Review would be so constricted in its authority that it could not “refer any matter directly to any law-enforcement agency.”
That sparked an outcry.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) officials decried the GOP plan for “returning the House to dark days when ethics violations were rampant and far too often tolerated.” Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at the reform group Issue One, denounced the attack on ethics and transparency as a threat to good government and healthy democracy. “Acting in the literal dark of night while Congress was not in session, Speaker Ryan and his House Republican Conference decided to thumb their noses at the American people,” said McGehee. “Eviscerating the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) is a blow to voters of both parties who hope for honest, robust oversight of their elected lawmakers.”
By Tuesday morning, calls from constituents were pouring into congressional offices and the House switchboard was overwhelmed. And President-elect Trump was suggesting that House Republicans might want to rethink the timing of their assault on oversight. “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 announced on Twitter.
It’s important to note that the president-elect did not take a strong stand for ethics and transparency. Rather, he seemed to suggest that the political optics were bad.
That made sense to top Republicans—especially members of the House leadership team who had fretted about those optics.
Ryan reportedly expressed concerns about the Goodlatte scheme on Monday, warning that backtracking on oversight might not go over well with voters who appear to be quite enthusiastic about eliminating the swamp. But don’t go thinking that Ryan has suddenly gotten excited about ethics. Ryan’s still seeking to punish transparency—and he continues to make excuses for Trump and Trump’s associates that suggest the speaker is uninterested in holding the incoming administration to any standard of accountability.
When it comes to specific ethical concerns—and to deeper concerns about the policy-making that is warped when an institution goes soft on questions of right and wrong—Ryan and House Republicans are not corruption fighters. They’re swamp creatures.