Mark Twain once said, “The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy.” If only he were with us to watch the House Republicans in action.
They came back to Washington last night to resume their congressional duties (lucky us), and sure enough, as their first piece of business, they crafted some classic artistic villainy. Behind closed doors, without advance notice to the public or the opposition party, and without any debate, they voted to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which since 2008 has probed and policed congressional corruption.
Remember that campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington? That was just rhetorical pap for the saps. On the eve of the inauguration of a guy who, by definition, by dint of his manifest business conflicts of interest, will instantly become the most corrupt president in history, the House Republicans decided last night to get Trumpy and exempt themselves from independent scrutiny.
That was the bad news. But now there is good news.
The public reaction — irate citizens on Twitter, thousands of callers jamming congressional switchboards, disgusted Republican commentators (Jennifer Rubin: “The complete intellectual and moral corruption of the GOP”), conservative watchdog groups (Judicial Watch: “Poor way to begin draining the swamp”) — was so relentless that, earlier today, it prompted the House Republicans to reverse themselves, to back off and leave the Ethics Office alone. As one GOP congressman said, “We shot ourselves in the foot.”
Great. Maybe these people are still capable of feeling the sting of accountability. But clearly their first impulse was to vote in secret to kill off the ethics cops with the expectation that they’d get away with it. Apparently they’re so cocooned in their gerrymandered districts, and so mistakenly convinced that they won a mandate in November, that they assumed it was perfectly fine to free themselves from ethics scrutiny. (At a time when, according to Gallup, only eight percent of Americans say that members of Congress have high ethical standards.)
And check out the attempted artistic villainy:
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics was created in ’08 after corruption scandals sent three House members to jail. It’s overseen by a six-member outside board. It has the power to investigate alleged sleaze based on anonymous citizen complaints. It has the power to recommend criminal prosecution. But as evidenced by last night’s vote, the House GOP wants to replace it with a toothless “Complaint Review” panel. That panel would be barred from acting on citizen tips, or recommending criminal prosection. It would be controlled by the House Ethics Committee, which in turn is controlled by Republicans whose loyalty is to the party. Basically, the GOP wants the power to shut down any probe of a member’s ethical misconduct, be it financial or sexual or whatever.
And while the independent Ethics Office has always been tasked with making its findings public, the GOP’s “Complaint Review” panel would’ve been barred from making its findings public. According to the provision that passed last night (this was my favorite line), the toothless panel “is not authorized to employ any person for a position involving communications with the public, including a communications director or press spokesperson.”
The optics of the GOP’s attempted gutting were so dreadfully tone deaf that even Trump mildly questioned whether the move was wise. He tweeted that, yes, the Ethics Office has been “unfair” (he gave no examples, natch, because substance doesn’t fit in a tweet), but he said that this is probably the wrong time to gut it because right now there are bigger issues on the table.
Paul Ryan, who opposed last night’s villainy, sought today to cover the House GOP’s retreat by promising that the Republicans will be clean as a whistle: “I want to make clear that this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the [Ethics Office] will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress. All members of Congress are required to earn the public’s trust every single day, and this House will hold members accountable to the people.”
That will happen only if the people insist on holding members accountable. If not for last night’s public outcry, House Republicans would’ve freed themselves from ethics oversight and nothing prevents them from trying that move again. Public vigilance is clearly required, 24/7.
As Mark Twain contended in “The Gilded Age” (his chronicle of 19th-century conflict-of-interest greed), “No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more.”