In the dead of night, during a holiday, and without prior discussion, the Republican Party in the U.S. House of Representatives voted 115 – 74 to dramatically weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (“OCE”). The vote was tallied but no record was kept of how individual Republican Representatives voted.
The vote was part of a package that would have defined Congressional rules for the next two years until a new Congress was elected. Ordinarily, the rules and procedures have been a fairly routine matter over the past 114 Congresses but this 115 th Congress decided its first official act was to politicize and gain Republican control over who gets investigated for ethics violations.
It's not ironic that several members of the Republican-controlled Congress who are currently under investigation supported this measure. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy opposed the rules change. President-Elect Donald Trump supported the rule change but said it shouldn't be at the top of Congress' to-do list.
This is where we should be proud as Americans. This dead of night scheme was caught by a couple of citizen watchdog organizations and the media. The resulting spontaneous outcry among ordinary citizens was so swift and so loud that the Republicans immediately backed-off their attempt to politicize justice.
The outcry was shocking to Republicans and should be heartening for all Americans. Why? The outcry was too fast to have been organized or coordinated by organizations supporting citizens' rights and government transparency. The flood of calls into Congressional offices was too diverse to have been programmed by robo-calls from special interests. In other words, the free media revealed the plot and the citizens responded.
The 115th Congress will be forever defined as the Congress that made elimination of ethics oversight their number one priority.
As citizens, there are a number of lessons we must learn:
- The government will always try to do their worst work during holidays when media is relaxed.Procedural aspects of proposed trade policies were released the day after Christmas a few years ago. Allowing China to violate trade sanctions against Iran was revealed on a July 4th . Many unfavorable news stories are announced on Friday afternoons to allow the weekend to buffet the media storm.
- The Republicans in the House of Representatives were not so brazen as to eliminate the OCE. That would create too much outcry. Instead, the procedure is to keep the department but eliminate its authority. This happened with IRS investigations of high-income taxpayers. The government kept the department but slashed its funding. This makes less news. The same process will be attempted for all oversight groups such as the EPA, SEC, and the IRS. The departments will remain but their corporate oversight powers will be slashed.
- The importance of citizen watchdog groups cannot be overstated. Government is an over-sized and complex business. Individual citizens cannot be expected to monitor all of government's activities. Political checks and balances often work on partisan issues but some issues such as financial regulation, defense spending, and pharmaceutical protections result in abuses that transcend political parties. Citizen watchdogs such as Public Citizen, the Project on Government Oversight, Move to Amend, and Coffee Party USA need active members and financial support.
- When politicians blame the media and proclaim the media is biased, they are right. It's up to each citizen to gather their news from diverse sources. In 1800, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were running for President in the nation's first brutally contested election, they used all the dirty tricks politicians use today. However, in 1800 the newspaper industry was vibrant and diverse. The city of Philadelphia alone had twenty-eight newspapers and the people knew fifteen of them were Federalist (today's Republican) and thirteen were Republican (today's Democratic). The people read both points of view and developed their own opinions. The lesson is that today's consolidated media is not free in the financial or political sense. Free needs your support even if it's on the internet. Fight donor fatigue and give a couple of dollars to each of the outlets you read and support investigative journalism.
The citizens won this round of Congressional shenanigans but, trust me, there will be many more fights ahead of us. Get involved, make the process joyful, listen, don't try to do everything, don't get overwhelmed, and make a small difference. That is all it takes to have a huge impact to keep our democracy.
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo
the fatigue of supporting it.”- Thomas Paine