House ethics drama

House Republicans picked the wrong issue upon which to flex their political muscles.

On Monday, the first day of the new Republican-controlled Congress, they voted to rein in the power of the Office of Congressional Ethics. By Tuesday they had reversed course after widespread criticism, including from President-elect Donald Trump — via his Twitter account, of course.

“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!” he tweeted Monday.

The same day, Gallup released a poll showing that Americans have significantly less faith in Trump than they had in his predecessors. As Time magazine reported, “Only 44% said they are confident Trump will avoid major scandals in his Administration, 46% said they are confident in Trump’s ability to handle an international crisis, and 47% said they trust him to use military force wisely. When the same questions were asked at the start of Barack Obama’s, George W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s terms, roughly three-quarters of Americans said they had confidence in the newly elected President in these areas.”

So it’s interesting that while the majority of Americans have little confidence in the president-elect’s abilities to handle presidentidal duties, he managed to assume a virtuous posture on a subject for which he’s known to have some challenges — ethics.

The OCE was created in 2008 in the aftermath of a series of scandals involving House lawmakers, including three who were sent to jail. Republicans had sought to move the quasi-independent ethics office under the control of the House Ethics Committee, affording members the right to shut down any OCE investigation. Ethics groups, both liberal and conservative, said the move was akin to letting the fox guard the henhouse as Congress would ultimately control investigations of its own members.

That’s the antithesis of draining the swamp, as Democrats were quick to point out.

Inexplicably, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was criticized even though he and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., attempted to sway rank-and-file Republicans from supporting the measure. Trump, apparently, succeeded where Ryan failed, begging the question: How out of kilter do things have to be for Donald Trump to be the cool-tempered voice of reason on an issue?

All in all, it was an embarrassing stumble out of the gate for a Republican leadership team bent on showing it has the capacity to govern.

As for the president-elect, he may be undisciplined and extemporaneous, but he continues to surprise in sometimes refreshing ways. Clearly, he’s not afraid of calling out his GOP brethren if he thinks they’re headed down the wrong path.


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