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Why We Need the Office of Congressional Ethics

Republicans’ misreading of the drain the swamp mantra’s resonance among the general public may prove difficult to recover from.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The 115th United States Congress is barely in session, but House Republicans have already made a grave, if telling, mistake.

In a surprise closed-door meeting on Monday, House Republicans voted to effectively eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics, Reuters reports. The third-party watchdog, established in the aftermath of the 2008 Jack Abramoff bribery scandal to supplement the House of Representatives’ own ethics committee in investigating misconduct on Capitol Hill, was intended to clean up the “culture of corruption” in Washington not just through encouraging transparency, but by aggressively pursuing corruption charges. Yes, that’s correct: After seizing massive upsets under the mantra of “drain the swamp” that President-elect Donald Trump engendered during the 2016 campaign, the House GOP used its first official move to open the door for more muck.

The move was considered by politicians on both sides of the aisle to be an unmitigated disaster. House Republicans immediately reversed course on their plans for the OCE following an outcry not just from Democrats, but also Republican party leaders including Trump, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Speaker Paul Ryan.

“It was a stumble,” South Carolina Representative Mark Sanfordtold the New York Times. “Probably not the way you want to start out.”

In reality, the OCE debacle is a bit more than a false start. In the American polity, the desire for an independent congressional watchdog has been in the making for decades — and Republicans’ gross misreading of the resonance of the “drain the swamp” mantra among the general public may prove a difficult wound to recover from.

Never mind the optics required for a secret meeting to root out ethics, which is a particularly boneheaded blunder given the 2016 campaign’s theme of clearing out corrupt elites — the OCE actually works. A 2014 report from advocacy group Public Citizen shows that Congress has disciplined 20 lawmakers since the OCE’s inception in 2008, up from a mere 10 in the 11 years leading up the Abramoff scandal. And while the OCE’s emergence was certainly bolstered by Democratic momentum in 2006 (and, despite its passage in March of 2008, the same legislative inertia that would translate into a blue wave in November’s general election), it’s far from an “unfair” partisan tool. Since the OCE’s inception, per Vox, the majority of disciplined lawmakers were Democrats after the Tea Party wave swept the House in the 2010 mid-term election.

But, more importantly, an independent ethics body has been a long time in the making. It’s widely understood that American trust in public institutions has plummeted since the end of the post-war 1950s. According to decades of Gallup polling, Congress’ favorability among the public is fading: The number of people who say they have a “great deal” or “a lot” of faith in Congress has fallen from 42 percent in 1973 to 7 percent in 2014.

Efforts to establish an independent ethics entity have followed declining faith in institutions. According to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report, the Senate held hearings as early as 1951 around the conception of a Commission on Ethics in Government to “strengthen the faith and confidence of the American people in their Government by assisting in the establishment of higher moral standards in the official conduct of the executive and legislative branches of the Government,” as the late Senator J. William Fulbright once put it.

Legislatively, the establishment of a body like the OCE was already coming to a head. In 1993, the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress considered a legislature-wide ethics body. Between 1987 and 2006, there were 11 proposals for an independent ethics entity in the House, mostly by Republican lawmakers. When President Richard Nixon was impeached in 1974, there were no ethics committees in the House and Senate: In the decades since, lawmakers have heard the message from their constituents.

The OCE affair isn’t just an act of political lunacy by House Republicans, but an alarming misreading of the American public’s appetite for political corruption, especially in the wake of President-elect Trump’s campaign. It’s understandable why: After all, Trump filled his cabinet with CEOs and Washington insiders despite his promise of tearing down a reprobate political establishment. The House GOP’s misstep could be a fatal flaw for the party’s post-2016 mandate — or it may just reveal the seemingly dystopian government that lies in store for us.