Lee Drutman: House GOP's course correction on OCE could be a good sign for things to come
Abandoning plan to gut ethics committee shows power of public outrage and media scrutiny, he says
Maybe government ethics have a little fight left in them, after all.
Less than 24 hours after both traditional and social media lit up with outrage over House Republicans’ plans to severely weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics, House Republicans decided that maybe this wasn’t the brand image they wanted to start 2017 with. So Republicans reversed themselves: The Office of Congressional Ethics will remain independent and therefore powerful, not a silenced fiefdom of the member-controlled House Ethics Committee, as the original GOP rules package had proposed.
This is good news, because it demonstrates two things.
First, it demonstrates the news media is attuned to the importance of ethics, and to the ways in which seemingly small, obscure changes can have a big effect. The press reacted quickly to this intended gutting, treating it as a major story.
Second, it demonstrates that voters on both sides are attuned to ethics. Social media lit up with outrage over the move against the OCE, and if people’s posts are to be believed, many of those outraged folks deluged their representatives’ offices with calls as well.
Presumably, the decision to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics arose from a staggering miscalculation by the House GOP on these two points. Republicans who supported the seemingly obscure changes must have figured hardly anybody would notice, and even fewer people would care. Perhaps, some members concluded, given what President-elect Donald Trump has been getting away with, norms really had changed. Why should members of Congress have to suffer?
This is not the first time the OCE has withstood challenges under threat. Many members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have long disliked the independence of the office, especially those who have been investigated.
Is this new “ethics matters” lesson a sign of things to come in 2017? Hopefully. But it’s not a given.
The Office of Congressional Ethics may have drawn such public outcry in this case because the narrative of weakening existing rules makes for a clear story, with obvious demands in response (keep the OCE!). By contrast, a failure to investigate corruption or identify conflicts of interest doesn’t always offer the same narrative clarity. It’s harder to raise those stories out of the shadows.
It’s also possible that House members who initially wanted to scrap the agency may have been willing to fold quickly because keeping the OCE wasn’t a major concession for them. They had lived with it, and the majority of members had never been bothered by it.
To be sure, there may be some who give Trump’s Twitter account credit for the course correction. But though it surely had an impact on some of the members, Trump’s tweets merely rode the crest of public opinion against the changes, rather than leading it. It is a mistake to give Trump too much credit, just as it is a mistake to take his Drain the Swamp plan seriously.
The successful fight to preserve the Office of Congressional Ethics is an encouraging development. The media was on the story quickly, organizations mobilized, the public responded and Congress heard the outrage loud and clear. This is how democratic accountability is supposed to work. Hopefully this is a sign of more good fights to come. It’s a promising sign that a sustained and well-organized call for Trump to divest from his business conflicts might have an impact, too.