Schmidt: They may have failed to close the Ethics Office, but don’t expect Republicans to act ethically

Schmidt: They may have failed to close the Ethics Office, but don’t expect Republicans to act ethically

The first day a Congress meets is filled with so much ceremony – swearings-in, the introduction of family members and so on – that we often miss the important business that takes place in the opening hours of each session. The adoption of the basic rules that the new Congress will abide by is crucial, and can often tell us something of the nature of the upcoming policy debates and votes. But I can’t remember witnessing a show as illustrative, or as pathetic, as that put on by the House Republican Caucus during the first twenty-four hours of the 115th Congress.

That show became public late on the night of the January 2nd, just hours before the 115th was sworn in. Representative Robert Goodlatte (Republican of Virginia), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that the House Republican Conference had agreed to his amendment to the big package of new rules. I can’t imagine that Goodlatte assumed that the amendment would escape criticism, even if it was announced at the eleventh hour, and with no advance notice or debate. Hushed up or not, the amendment was a deafening shot across the bow of a bipartisan, and ideologically broad, community of reform-minded Congress-watchers (including the far right Judicial Watch, the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause).

Simply put: the Goodlatte Amendment gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Back in January of 2006, the conviction on charges of corruption of uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and eventually three members of the House of Representatives, helped fuel the demand for a new body to investigate criminally unethical actions on the part of House members. It took two years, but, in 2008, the House voted to create the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. The OCE was controversial from the first, not least because the House already had its own Ethics Committee, designed to police its own members. But the House Ethics Committee was notoriously inactive.

I’m actually sympathetic with the Committee’s dilemma. In a political system that assumes a fair amount of self-interested behavior, and in which campaign money has been defined by the US Supreme Court as a protected form of political free speech, it can be hard to even differentiate “corrupt” from “non-corrupt” behavior. The Court has also recognized a phenomenon known as the “appearance of corruption,” which has played a part in some high-profile campaign finance cases. Calling out the behavior of a fellow House member as “corrupt” or even apparently corrupt can be risky – there can always be reprisals, since every member of the House needs donations to survive, and constituents, who, generally speaking, are in favor of Congressional reform, can be quick to blame their representatives for what the press has dubbed “partisan witch hunts” – and anyway, accusations won’t even necessarily lead to successful investigations against the accused.

The OCE was a successful way to deal with this logjam. It is an independent body, empowered to investigate allegations of misconduct against representatives and their staff, and while it cannot punish members, it can submit its research, with recommendations, to the House Ethics Committee. The Committee is not required to act on those recommendations, but it is required to publish them.

Thanks to two former Speakers, Nancy Pelosi (Democrat of California) and John Boehner (Republican of Ohio), the OCE has consistently had respected bipartisan membership, and guarantees of protection from majority attacks. It was successful in investigations of powerful Democratic and Republican members of the House.

And then, as its first order of business, the new House majority voted to render the OCE essentially powerless.

Remarkably, the GOP Conference seemed to be caught flat-footed when announcement was met with public outrage. He claimed that his legislation would strengthen the OCE, despite the fact that he was proposing to rob the office of its independence, prohibiting it from any investigations that hadn’t been approved by the House Ethics Committee. Politicians have a reputation for lying, but that particular lie was so false on its face that I have trouble believing a man of Goodlatte’s experience would have attempted it if he had, in any way, prepared a public defense of his amendment. Speaker Paul Ryan, characteristically, tried to have it both ways, defending the amendment while speaking out against it (despite the fact that, as Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute notes, the Rules Package “is put together by the leadership; nothing gets included or excluded without the say-so of the speaker”). Within hours of the amendment making headlines, and after House member offices were deluged by angry phone calls and emails from constituents, an emergency meeting of the GOP caucus voted to strip the Goodlatte Amendment from the Rules Package.

We should note that both members of Maine’s House delegation rose to the occasion. Representative Poliquin is on record as voting against the Goodlatte Amendment and Representative Pingree has used the extra attention to the Rules Package to call out other serious problems with the behavior of the GOP leadership. That speaks well of both members and their constituents.

Most coverage of this bizarre and depressing first day debacle was in accord with the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza: the House GOP leadership overplayed their hand, to a “very dumb” extent, and undermined the “optics” of their party’s increased power. The New York Times’ Eric Lipton, meanwhile, drew our attention to the significance of a move like this at the cusp of major legislative work. “The surprising vote came on the eve of the start of a new session of Congress, where emboldened Republicans are ready to push an ambitious agenda on everything from health care to infrastructure, issues that will be the subject of intense lobbying from corporate interests.” Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, at Bloomberg, is worried about the larger consequences of the combination of hubris and incompetence that this episode suggests.

These analyses are all valid. We should, indeed, be worried that this presages a uniquely incompetent, or corrupt, or idiotic, Congress.

In addition to those concerns, however, I have another, which I find even more disturbing: I see, in the behavior of the House GOP caucus, neither stupidity nor incompetence, but rather a commitment to radical change in the United States that leaves them utterly contemptuous of even the appearance of democratic or ethical constraint.

The Constitution is very clear on some topics, but much of the work of government depends on democratic norms; we are concerned about corruption, for example, but also about the appearance of corruption, because corruption, like deception, undermines the already shifting ground of politics.  Some basic norms of democratic deal-making are necessary if Congress is going to carry out its legislative work, precisely because democratic practices rest upon things like promises, partnerships, and words, which are perpetually contingent.

The fact that the House Republican leadership doesn’t care enough about democratic norms of ethical behavior to acknowledge the possibility of outrage over the gutting of the OCE – much like Representative Goodlatte’s arrogant decision to not even cobble together a believable lie about the design of his amendment – is chilling. If the first day of the 115th Congress is in any way illustrative of the two years ahead of us, then we aren’t just faced with a majority that has a different set of policy proposals from those that we prefer. We are faced with a majority that considers the basic performance of democratic norms as beneath it, and that assumes that the norms of consensus and ethical agreement – the foundations of governance, after all – are there to be brushed aside with casual abuse.

Photo via House Republican Conference website.

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Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.

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