If you’re one of 435 Americans who can get yourself elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, then by definition you’re probably politically astute – which makes what happened this past week all the more hard to figure.
After being handed the reins of power at just about every level of government everywhere, House Republicans made it their first order of business to replace the independent Office of Congressional Ethics with a weakened and muzzled office overseen by the House Ethics Committee – in other words, by the very Congress the office investigates. Moreover, this happened during a behind-closed-doors meeting.
Among Arkansas’ congressional delegation, Reps. French Hill and Steve Womack voted against the plan, while Rep. Rick Crawford was traveling but said later he opposed it. Rep. Bruce Westerman voted for it. All of them said reforms are needed – just not necessarily these reforms, or these reforms done this way.
The backlash against the move was immediate and included not only Democrats but also President-elect Donald Trump, who questioned the timing and priorities in a tweet that concluded with “#DTS” – in other words, “drain the swamp.” On Tuesday, hours before the full Congress was to vote on the new rules, House Republicans hastily met and voted by unanimous consent to remove the controversial provision.
Why stumble so badly so early? House Republicans had heard complaints from some of their fellow members who said they had been unfairly targeted by an office that too aggressively investigates anonymous and/or frivolous complaints. Congressmen were then forced to spend large sums of their personal money – we’re talking $100,000 – to defend themselves and try to clear their name.
As a journalist, I talk a lot to politicians, mostly at the state level but occasionally with members of Congress as well. I don’t believe most elected officials are crooks – and granted, I’m writing the first draft of this paragraph on the same day an Arkansas state legislator pleaded guilty to steering $175,000 to two organizations and receiving $38,000 in bribes in return.
I think most elected officials are OK folks whose jobs force them to make professional and moral compromises to meet unattainable, sometimes contradictory public expectations. They’re expected to stand for their beliefs but represent their constituents’ will, and they’re expected to raise millions of dollars to fund their campaigns but not to be overly influenced by those donations, which of course come from people trying to influence them.
So when all four members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation say this Office of Congressional Ethics needs to be reined in a little, I buy that, as long as it’s reined in, not gutted, as part of an open, transparent, bipartisan process. Which this wasn’t.
What’s more concerning is what Congress is planning to do in the next few months. It’s poised to repeal Obamacare without any consensus on a replacement, which could throw the entire health care system into a state of confusion and uncertainty for years. It will do so through a budget reconciliation mechanism that, as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, is pointing out, continues the grand old tradition of adding trillions to the national debt. And if it follows the president-elect’s lead and does as past Congresses have done, it soon will cut taxes without cutting spending, all while promising the difference will be bridged by future economic growth.
This behavior is perfectly legal. You might even say there’s nothing personally unethical about it. It’s just highly irresponsible. And it happens partly because of those same unattainable and contradictory expectations by voters, who tend to want easy answers without hard choices. If you’re a politician who wants to stay in office, just keep your hands out of the cookie jar, cut taxes but don’t cut spending, and find someone or something to blame so voters don’t blame you or themselves. The ones who really pay the price are members of future generations, and they don’t vote.
Members of Congress should pay a personal and financial price if they act illegally. If they act irresponsibly, they should pay a political one at the ballot box. Apparently, a handful are punished even when they haven’t acted illegally, and Congress should fix that. Few are punished when they act irresponsibly, and the voters should fix that.