All eyes have been on Donald Trump and the executive branch as the Presidential inauguration came and went. The November surprise election win for the Republican candidate marked a turn in US politics; the 24-hour news cycle tirelessly churning out story after story with him at the epicentre, ultimately becoming a marquee signature of the election cycle and contributing to his popularity and subsequent victory.
The latest casualty of the Presidential fetishization has been the lack of media attention to Congressional politics as the 115th US Congress was sworn in this past week with little fanfare, Republicans holding a majority in both Congressional chambers. First order of business: gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) filed a proposal in which the independently controlled institution would be remerged under the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Ethics and be stripped of its most important powers. This measure would have eliminated the gap between the office and the ethics committee, effectively removing it as an independent institution for hearing ethical grievances. Furthermore, the initiative would have eliminated the possibility for anonymous complaints, making it harder for those in a position of weakness to speak out. Although the plan fell through 24 hours after it was proposed following public backlash, the attempt to gut the OCE is important in that it is a good indicator of things to come.
The Office of Congressional Ethics was founded in 2008 following complaints that the House Committee on Ethics (HCE) had been serving as a partisan tool. Having spent over 200 years at the forefront of government oversight relating to ethics charges, the HCE had recently become a way for representatives to draw attention towards and denigrate political opponents. As a member of the minority in the House, Newt Gingrich was famous for this during later half of the 1900s, often aggressively raising ethics complaints and holding public inquiries for his political enemies. In conjunction with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Republicans turned Congressional mechanisms intended to keep government honest into partisan tribunals looking to gain political brownie points. They used these tools to unseat the Democrats in 1995 by flooding the news with accusations of misconduct, ethic violations and corruption. The hypocrisy and moral fragility of this strategy was quickly exposed with the conviction of Bob Ney (R-Oh.) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff in 2006 over lobbying and ethics violations. Subsequently, Newt Gingrich’s personal ethics violations over campaign finance laws and check kiting demonstrated how the HCE had lost its integrity and effectiveness in exposing true misconduct.
The lessons learned by politicians in 1990 minority politics indicate how important ethics and oversight mechanisms are in retaining power and staying relevant. By neutering Democrat’s access to such mechanisms, Republicans assure themselves a more streamlined consolidation of power. An independent ethics committee prevents the control of such power and decentralizes it away from the chair of committee and ultimately Republican leadership, something Republicans would like to avoid. Furthermore, by simply adding the power of the OCE to the sphere of the HCE’s influence and not eliminating it altogether, House Republicans avoid a Democratic emulation of their very own Gingrich strategy by splitting power between two institutions. The OCE allowed for both Democrats and Republicans to expose corruption and ethics violations from both a position of power and anonymity. This arrangement worked well for both parties in a split government. In a government run completely by Republicans, we can see how this power play will benefit those with majority rule. Democrats can’t claim what minority power they have in the HCE as it is delegated to the OCE, and they can’t use the OCE to issue ethics complaints on their behalf as it has been effectively rendered useless.
By neutering the OCE, Republican lawmakers risk eliminating one of the few powers the minority party holds. These developments hold as immensely hypocritical as Republicans themselves, held to a minority in the 90s, used the very institutions they are attempting to neuter as a source of their own resurgence. Newt Gingrich, the architect of this strategy railed against then Democratic House Speakers Jim Wright (D- TX.) and Tom Folley (D- WA.), citing majority overreach, corruption and unaccountability. Today, in a political theatre where oversight only matters when convenient, ethics and minority powers will have to take a step back towards consolidation of power now that Republicans are in full control. Although this particular initiative failed, we can expect similar attempts to control the ins and outs of Congressional oversight and ethics in the near future. Next time, Republicans might just get exactly what they want.
Photo: Government Issue