Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan on the first day of the 115th Congress. Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The new Republican Congress which met for the first time yesterday held such promise. With GOP control of both the House and the Senate and Donald Trump due to be sworn in as president on January 20th, now is the chance of the decade for the conservative agenda: simplifying the tax code and closing loopholes, reforming the 80,000 pages of federal regulations added each year, improving the healthcare system and confronting the imminent social care and entitlement crisis. You would have thought Congressional Republicans would have wanted to get to work on these crucial issues straight away.
You would be wrong.
Instead, coverage of the first day of the new Congress was dominated by the Republican’s shock move on Monday night to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) of its powers. The amendments, adopted in a secret GOP meeting, were to be included in a House Rules package and voted on publicly on Tuesday, where they were widely expected to pass given the Republican majority. They would have placed the OCE under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee (and thereby under the control of the lawmakers it was supposed to be investigating), prohibited anonymous tips, and barred the OCE from disclosing its findings to the public. The charge was led primarily by individuals who had themselves been accused by the OCE for various forms of misconduct.
The Democrats and the media had a field day. It was pointed out repeatedly that the OCE had been established in 2008 in the wake of a corruption scandal that involved GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff admitting to attempting to bribe lawmakers, with the implication that Republicans now seemed happy to let such abuses slide. Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to “Drain The Swamp” was highlighted and ridiculed. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded that “evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress”. Calls from constituents flooded into Congressmen’s offices, while the Democrats rallied around attacking this audacious move to reduce transparency and accountability in government.
Then the president-elect weighed in, and the proposed rule change got axed. Kind of.
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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
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
……..may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
Although Trump’s intervention via Twitter has been credited with saving the OCE, the reality is more complicated. Trump’s tweets were hardly roaringly supportive of the Office of Congressional Ethics, and he seemed to suggest that it was the timing and not the content that was at issue. (In fact, Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway had gone on NBC earlier in the day to defend the Republicans’ move to hamstring the OCE.) But lukewarm as his criticism was, combined with the scathing condemnation from the media and the fact that there is really no positive way to spin dismantling the safeguards that prevent government corruption, it was enough. The GOP leadership decided to strike the amendment, Republicans complied, and the new rules were dead. For the moment.
What is striking about this episode is not the OCE itself, or even Trump’s involvement, but the tone it sets for the new Congress. It wasn’t just the Democrats who fought the change – the top Republicans Paul Ryan (House Speaker) and Kevin McCarthy (Majority Leader) were also adamantly opposed. It looks like the giddying success of controlling both chambers of Congress as well as the executive branch for the first time since 2006 has not only gone to the heads of some Republicans, but also uncovered splits in the party. Some factions, like the one that introduced the last-minute and blindingly misguided OCE rule change, are feeling emboldened by Trump’s rise, flexing their muscles and standing up to the leadership. Meanwhile, the Democrats have licked their wounds and can unite against the Republican majority, widening and exploiting party splits wherever they emerge. It’s not enough to significantly limit the Republicans’ power, for now, but it’s an interesting dynamic.
At any rate, if you were thinking of showering Trump with praise for his integrity and defence of ethics, think again. The president-elect followed up his OCE tweets with a fresh attack on US intelligence agencies and their conclusions on Russian interference in the election, questioning why a briefing had been delayed.
The “Intelligence” briefing on so-called “Russian hacking” was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2017
It is not clear what the protocol is for tweeting about classified intelligence briefings, as no president has ever tried it before. I guess we’ll find out.