WASHINGTON ― At around 3 in the afternoon on Monday, with much of the country yet to ease back to work, a Bloomberg reporter posted a curious bit of news on Twitter: House Republicans were considering moving the Office of Congressional Ethics under the oversight of the House Committee on Ethics.
That evening, Republicans gathered for a closed-door discussion and vote on the proposal, which had been put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) as an amendment to the rules that would govern the lower chamber for the next two years. A handful of members argued in opposition, including the Republicans’ No. 2 man, Kevin McCarthy of California, but the amendment won the secret vote handily, 119-74, and became part of the full rules package.
The measure was extraordinary. It would rename the OCE to become the Office of Congressional Complaint Review. It would bar it from investigating any anonymous tips. It would block the body from moving forward on any investigation without full approval by members of Congress who oversee it, yet it would have no investigative ability to uncover evidence in order to obtain that approval. It would require the body to shut down an investigation on orders from those same members of Congress. And if the office learned of potential criminal activity, it would be barred from directly contacting law enforcement, a restriction of dubious constitutionality (and one devoid of ethics).
Then on Monday night, the public erupted at the news that the GOP had secretly nuked its own independent ethics watchdog. The debate, as it often does, initially played out on Twitter, and given such a partisan time, it was unusually lopsided against the move.
By the morning, it was front-page news on major papers, and President-elect Donald Trump, clearly observing the fury, jumped into the debate, chastising House Republicans for boneheaded timing. “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!” Trump suggested on his favorite medium, Twitter.
Under intense pressure, House Republicans reconvened around noon on Tuesday, and this time voted to undo what they had done. Former Ethics Chairman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said he voted against the amendment Monday night. “Calmer heads prevailed this morning,” he said, adding that Republican leaders had made sure to note Trump’s tweeted opposition in cajoling a reversal.
Though Trump has gotten some credit for the about-face, it’s more likely that he was reacting to public pressure that was already overwhelming. By the time he weighed in, condemnation had been swift and furious. “I could have told you last night when we left this would be undone,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) told reporters Tuesday when asked how much influence Trump’s tweets had.
The about-face is significant because it is a strong signal, if one were needed, that public opinion still matters. Despite losing the popular vote for the White House and getting fewer overall votes for Senate seats than Democratic candidates, Republicans are on the verge of controlling all three branches of government, and have telegraphed their intention to ram through the most aggressive agenda possible. Tuesday’s faceplant suggests less may be possible than Republicans think.
It’s also important because the presidential election was characterized by a series of moments that defied political history. Remarks by Trump, whether public or privately recorded, that would have ruined any other candidate ran off his back ― or, in some cases, even gave him a boost. The disorienting campaign has led to speculation that nothing is the same in American politics. Tuesday showed that public opinion still matters.
Overreach is a common mistake made by new majorities, and one that has sunk presidents before. This time, though, it was Trump who spotted it, leaving Republicans on Capitol Hill looking weak and corrupt.
The irony is that many House Democrats privately hate the OCE just as much as Republicans do, and would have loved to see it gutted and have Republicans take the blame.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was disappointed at the turnaround, saying after the Tuesday meeting the OCE has “damaged or destroyed a lot of political careers in this place and it has cost members of Congress millions of dollars to defend themselves against anonymous allegations.”
He noted that there were probably a hundred House Democrats open to reforming the way it operates. Asked if he thought they’d vote that way, he said: “Yesterday maybe. Today, after all the press? Probably not.”
The ethics office had been established in the wake of the investigation into former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which was driven most publicly by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “I think [public opinion] still does [matter], especially with the low approval rating Congress has already,” he said, adding he was glad to see House Republicans reverse themselves.
One of Abramoff’s lieutenants, Todd Boulanger, who did prison time as a result of the affair, said that he welcomed the assault on the OCE, but questioned the political wisdom of the assailants.
“If elected officials and government employees can’t do their job and need someone else to step in, why the hell do we pay them?” said Boulanger. “That said, you have to have complete shit for brains to do it day one of a new Congress.”