The House GOP Fumbles

After pressure from President-elect Donald Trump, media, and Democrats, House GOP members backed down from a plan to “gut” the legislative body’s internal ethics office. The New York Times reports:

The reversal came less than 24 hours after House Republicans, meeting in a secret session, voted, over the objections of Speaker Paul D. Ryan, to eliminate the independent ethics office. It was created in 2008 in the aftermath of a series of scandals involving House lawmakers, including three who were sent to jail.

Republicans, led by Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, had sought to prevent the quasi-independent ethics office from taking up investigations that might involve criminal charges and they wanted to grant lawmakers on the more powerful House Ethics Committee the right to shut down any of the inquiries. They also wanted to block the small staff at the Office of Congressional Ethics from speaking to the news media.

“It has damaged or destroyed a lot of political careers in this place and it’s cost members of Congress millions of dollars to defend themselves against anonymous allegations,” Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, said Tuesday, still defending the move.

It looks like GOP house members are less interested in draining the swamp than in declaring it a protected natural wetland. Even so, these things are sometimes more complicated than they look. The government is full of bureaucracies with noble-sounding titles that they don’t live up to their names or mandates. Since the Progressive Era, ethics monitors and the like have proliferated across the country. But it’s not clear how much cronyism they’ve actually eliminated. And it is clear that they make life harder for honorable politicians and other public officials.

Still, it is up to Congress to convince the skeptical public that it is putting the general interest ahead of the parochial interest of its members. This is not the way to get that job done. It’s also a sign that Republican legislators would do well to tread carefully as they seek to understand just what sort of mandate they were handed in November.

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