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Ethics? We Don’t Need No Stinking Ethics

I try to avoid getting on the outrage bandwagon. Most outrages turn out to be outright fabrications, like the hate hoaxes that we seem to be endlessly plagued with, or considerably more complicated than they are presented as being.

But sometimes you should be outraged by the genuinely outrageous. Which means you need a good filter to help you figure out what’s worth being outraged about.

For the issues with which he’s most concerned, Norm Ornstein is one of my filters. And he’s pretty outraged about the Republican gutting of the Office of Congressional Ethics:

I have rarely been more angry or dismayed at the conduct of Congress than I was Monday night with the unconscionable, deplorable, underhanded move by Representative Bob Goodlatte to eviscerate and undermine the Office of Congressional Ethics. When House Speaker Paul Ryan and his counterpart Nancy Pelosi indicated weeks ago that they would continue OCE, the reform community—left and right—breathed a sigh of relief. Ryan, like his predecessor John Boehner, had seen the value to the integrity of the House of the office, which has been a stalwart of bipartisan and nonpartisan comity and independence. That makes this bait-and-switch action even more outrageous.

Some have pointed out the relatively recent vintage of the office — it was created in 2008 — as a way of suggesting that its removal merely reverts to a reasonably-functioning prior system. Ornstein rips the stuffing out of that objection: the OCE was created specifically in response to the escalating seriousness of ethics problems in the Hastert/DeLay years (remember them?) and succeeded because both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner wanted it to.

And Ornstein isn’t buying Paul Ryan’s claims that he tried to preserve the OCE but was overruled by his caucus:

Rules packages get up or down votes, and are top priority for the majority leadership. They are not rejected by the majority party. The package is put together by the leadership; nothing gets included or excluded without the say-so of the speaker. Make no mistake about it: Despite public reports loudly proclaiming his opposition, it’s hard to believe this would have happened had Paul Ryan really tried to stop it. And do not believe Goodlatte’s risable assurance that this strengthens OCE. It has been muzzled and hamstrung, defenestrated and castrated. If Speaker Ryan really is opposed, he can demand a separate vote on the OCE provision when the whole House votes on its rules. If he does not, he owns it, plain and simple.

I’m not at all surprised that stuff like this is happening first. Any time a new party takes power, it makes sense for them to push their highest and most difficult priorities first. When President Obama prioritized health care reform over a more aggressive response to the foreclosure crisis (or, for that matter, climate change), that told you both what he and his party thought would be the hardest sell (do your toughest stuff first), and what would pay the most long-term dividends (in terms of constituents who benefitted from the action).

Republicans would be crazy to do something like this in the run up to an election. So they are doing it immediately after an election. And, as well, they presumably see a strong and independent body policing Congressional ethics as a material obstacle to their individual and collective advancement, such that removing that watchdog will pay dividends down the road.

I suspect the GOP caucus knows what they are doing. I hope advocates of the public interest know how to respond.

UPDATE: well, right after I posted this, the House Republicans backed away from their own proposal in the face of criticism not only from Democrats and independent reform groups but from President-elect Donald Trump.

That doesn’t mean the proposal is dead — Trump’s own tweets against the measure suggested the problem was more the timing than the substance. But nonetheless: it’s a pretty clear message to the GOP House about where the power lies right now. It sure doesn’t look like it’s in the Speaker’s office.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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