5 takeaways from House GOP's about-face on ethics
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One could postulate any number of theories explaining the politically insane proposition, and then sudden reversal, posed by House Republicans on ethics this past Tuesday. The why they were so pressed to ditch the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) is as compelling as the how they arrived there.

Clues abound in the frantic and discombobulated way they went about it. Showing no interest in tabling it for later, House Republicans wanted it passed quickly — a loud hint that some in the caucus could have something to hide. Here was a clever way to get in front of it: Wiping fingerprints. Dousing crime scenes with gasoline. Quietly removing hands from cookie jars.

Those sorts of things.

Or maybe not. Perhaps it really was as innocent as House Republicans simply believing they could streamline the ethics review process with as little fuss as possible. But, more than likely, that really wasn't the case and now we're left with key takeaways on what that means:

1. House Republicans really do think we're that dumb. Overestimating public stupidity, proponents may have truly felt it was something the body politic could do without — since the body politic isn't as astute as once thought, anyway (the recent election can attest to that).

This partly explains the internal confusion, with some — like the perennially double-tongued House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanInterior fast tracks study of drilling's Arctic impact: report Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia National Dems make play in Ohio special election MORE (R-Wis.) — first for it and then against it. Even President-elect Donald Trump's own senior staff couldn't decide what to do about it.

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But, what else to expect from elected leaders when the public is this civically disengaged and detached from the political process? The 2016 presidential election outcome provided more than enough proof, with less than 60 percent of eligible voters participating and only less than 30 percent of that batch voting for the winner.

According to Gallup, only 35 percent of Americans polled can name their member of Congress (perhaps explaining why 90 percent of members get re-elected despite only 14 percent public approval).

And when barely 20 percent of voters can point out their state legislator — the person responsible for the redistricting process that engineers permanent congressional majorities — that's a recipe for handing over full control of governing institutions whether you planned it that way or not.

2. Trump really does rule. Optimists hope that congressional Republicans have a pain threshold, a quiet, privately drawn line-in-the-sand. They'll come around at some point, think reasonably, and activate essential checks and balances on the neo-despotic Trump.

Realists know better. Party loyalty and the electoral adrenaline of a campaign-win-at-all costs is baked into GOP DNA in ways Democrats could never emulate. Any fantasies of House Republicans eventually standing up to their narcissistic party leader were effectively destroyed in a matter of disapproving tweets from the president-elect once word of the OCE's dissolution reached public eye.

And while some might nervously grab for that moment as reassurance that "see, maybe Trump won't be that bad after all," it really was just another example of the strongman's skill at swiftly whipping his political subordinates into submission.

3. On the other hand, we could have witnessed one shot in a brewing corruption cold war between Trump and congressional Republicans. While an incoming President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE has no power or pull, whatsoever, over the OCE, he could rake folks over coals by simply invoking the unpleasant smell of it poking around in members' business. There could be more to it than preserving the president-elect's mendacious "drain-the-swamp" pledge.

It's easy to assume other reasons why Trump publicly rebuked the attempt to ground it: A gutless OCE means fewer opportunities for Trump to point out congressional scandals when he's engaged in policy fights with them. Because, well, he's just that type of guy.

In some ways, oversight of congressional ethics can become a public relations leveraging tool against intransigent members who cross the Trump White House too much. Who knows? Maybe congressional Republicans, along with some quiet House Democrats, sensed that.

What's conceivable, however, is that both Capitol Hill and White House could be locked in perpetual combat over who's more corrupt and scandal-tainted than the other. Each is apt to dangle the closet skeletons of the other over their head.

4. Trolling Congress can sometimes work, if you know what you're doing. Despite the reigning, brownnosing mainstream media narrative that Super Trump saved congressional ethics (just as he “saved” jobs at Carrier, Ford and, possibly, General Motors — see the pattern here?), congressional Republicans themselves might differ slightly: Apparently, many Capitol Hill offices were overwhelmed with calls from outraged constituents and trolling online protesters tapping into tweeted House phone directories.

Perhaps only 35 percent of Americans know their member of Congress, and only 9 percent frequently call their elected officials. But that's still quite a few determined Americans who can easily shut down the phone lines of 435 House offices if they really put their minds to it.

5. But, once again, it's not like Democrats will know what to do about it. There were many players who seemed to influence the unfolding circus over ethics in one way or another: Congressional Republicans. Ryan. Trump's alter-ego, Kellyanne Conway. The meddling 9 percent of Americans who actually give care enough to call their congressional office and determine how the remaining 91 percent should be governed.

But it didn't seem as if Democrats were among them, beyond the anticipated condemnations from left-of-House brass like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Democrats have yet to formulate a coherent and strongly persuasive policy counterpunch in the post-election landscape, as they're still bickering over who's to chair the party and whose turn it is to bash the president-elect on cable.

So far, the best the opposition can come up with is screaming anything that's Trump in reverse — it's as if Trump is an estranged leader of the Democratic Party on temporary loan to the GOP.

Ultimately, what we did see is a GOP afraid of assassination by Trump's tweet, afraid of media narratives that steered away from the epic ObamaCare repeal in play, and frightened by relentless citizens flooding up their phone lines.

But it's not clear if they actually fear their counterparts on the left or even care what they think. Instead, Democrats looked on like circling teenage spectators yelling “fight, fight” as the punches landed.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root and a contributor to The Hill. He is Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and the Sunday Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia. He is also host of "The Ellison Report," a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @ellisonreport.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.