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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

GOP’s Ethics Stumble, Walkback Opens Opportunity for Dems

Don’t put too much stock in the meme being parroted by President-elect Trump’s minons that his tweet prevented a Republican attempt to weaken the power of the Office of Congressional Ethics. Here’s  “What really changed the GOP’s mind,” a CNN post by Lee Drutman, senior fellow in the Political Reform Program at New America and author of “The Business of America is Lobbying”

Less than 24 hours after both traditional and social media lit up with outrage over House Republicans’ plans to severely weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics, House Republicans decided that maybe this wasn’t the brand image they wanted to start 2017 with. So Republicans reversed themselves: The Office of Congressional Ethics will remain independent and therefore powerful, not a silenced fiefdom of the member-controlled House Ethics Committee, as the original GOP rules package had proposed.

…Republicans who supported the seemingly obscure changes must have figured hardly anybody would notice, and even fewer people would care. Perhaps, some members concluded, given what President-elect Donald Trump has been getting away with, norms really had changed. Why should members of Congress have to suffer?

…To be sure, there may be some who give Trump’s Twitter account credit for the course correction. But though it surely had an impact on some of the members, Trump’s tweets merely rode the crest of public opinion against the changes, rather than leading it. It is a mistake to give Trump too much credit, just as it is a mistake to take his Drain the Swamp plan seriously.

At times some Democrats have been hostile to the Office of Congressional Ethics, as Drutman notes. But this time it was the House Republican’s baby, and the press coverage was very tough, which is a good thing. As Drutman puts it,

The successful fight to preserve the Office of Congressional Ethics is an encouraging development. The media was on the story quickly, organizations mobilized, the public responded and Congress heard the outrage loud and clear. This is how democratic accountability is supposed to work. Hopefully this is a sign of more good fights to come. It’s a promising sign that a sustained and well-organized call for Trump to divest from his business conflicts might have an impact, too.

It’s important to commend the media when they do a good job, and it’s encouraging that the public outcry was part of the incentive to prevent the weakening of the OCE.

It’s equally-important, however, for Democrats to seize the mantle of leadership on congressional ethics. While some Democrats have been implicated in ethics violations over the years, the record shows that Republicans in congress have a much longer, more problematic ethics rap sheet. With oil barons, billionaires and Wall Street tycoons dominating Trump’s cabinet nominees, along with Trump’s web of shady business dealings and hidden taxes, and with congressional Republicans cozying up with lobbyists,  Democrats are going to have to work overtime just to remain vigilant in monitoring Republican ethics violations.

It’s worth it. By relentlessly exposing Republican ethics violations — and every indication suggests there will be plenty more coming in the new congress and the Trump Administration — and by enhancing the Democratic Party’s capacity for self-policing on ethics, Democrats have an excellent chance to self-brand as the only party that fights for clean government and transparency. Supported by effective messaging, that’s a brand that will produce electoral gains.

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