We learned something good this week: A combination of shame, journalism and public pressure still works — at least a little bit — in making Congress back down from doing disgusting things.
In the space of 24 hours, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives voted in secret to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics and then scrapped that whole idea.
First: the Office of Congressional Ethics is a somewhat independent entity with the power to investigate ethics complaints from any source, including anonymous tips. It also has the power to speak publicly about its findings.
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That might seem unfair, until you realize that the power to punish rests with the House Ethics Committee. Even if the Office of Congressional Ethics produces a 295-page report establishing that eight representatives received daily massages for two years, paid for by lobbyists from the fracking industry, the House Ethics Committee could just ignore the whole thing.
This will shock you, but politicians are notably poor policers of politicians. It might be tempting for Congressman X to go after the other party for free massages, but in the back of X’s mind is the possibility that the Olympic-size swimming pool installed in his backyard by the casino industry might come up someday.
So the Office of Congressional Ethics can and does release investigation results to the press and nonprofit watchdog groups. This is a good thing.
Who else has recently taken the position lately that there is no such thing as a conflict of interest? Oh, I know! President-elect Donald Trump! Trump told The New York Times in November that, under the law, “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
This was his quaint way of saying he intended, through family surrogates, to continue with his globe-spanning array of licensing deals, development projects and loans, regardless of how much they seem to compromise his capacity for independent presidential decision-making. That, coupled with his refusal to release his tax returns, means it’s theoretically possible for Trump to be somehow indebted to, say, a Russian criminal oligarch in a way that influences how he formulates foreign policy. Sigh.
Trump was somehow able to ride the tide of public contempt for corruption, using the slogan “drain the swamp” even though he is a walking, tweeting swamp. One of his keys to victory was convincing a lot of voters that Hillary Clinton was more corrupt than he was, by means of a painstaking, fact-driven argument consisting entirely of calling her “Crooked Hillary.”
So on Tuesday, Trump delivered a major policy address — by which I mean two conjoined tweets — scolding the House Republicans for vaulting over important stuff in order to try to weaken the independent ethics watchdog “as unfair as it may be.” Translation: You have my permission to eat the watchdog for dessert, but not until you eat the vegetables I laid out for you.
There was also scolding coming from the press and clean government nonprofits. The phones were ringing with constituent calls. And the Republicans caved.
“It was a stumble,” said stumbling expert Mark Sanford, who is inexplicably a Republican congressman from South Carolina despite, while governor, having single-handedly turned “hiking the Appalachian trail” into a metaphor for “hooking up with my mistress in Argentina.”
One unresolved question is: How much do American voters care about ethics and corruption? They don’t get polled on it that often, but when they do, it seems to matter. On the other hand, they accepted Trump as a credible ethics champion.
Colin McEnroe is a columnist for the Hartford Courant.