Which is worse: That the Republican majority in the House of Representatives would, without public debate, hold a secret vote to gut the chamber’s independent ethics panel? Or that members of the majority party would barely miss a step in putting their own interests ahead of those of their constituents and the nation as a whole?
The first issue became moot for the time being because lawmakers quickly — and wisely — backed down on Tuesday. They did so amid the uproar that accompanied their move to do away with independent investigations of members’ alleged improprieties. They heard criticism from three fronts: President- elect Donald Trump, who reminded them of genuine legislative priorities; congressional Democrats; and perhaps most heartening, waves of constituents who were dismayed and outraged.
Mr. Trump’s involvement garnered the most publicity. His intervention also was most welcome, and if it is what persuaded House Republicans to withdraw their proposal, that’s just fine. It’s unlikely that House Democrats would have much influence over House Republicans, who had ignored Speaker Paul Ryan’s warning against the move. We’d also like to believe enough constituents objected to give Republicans pause. After all, public opinion polls regularly show that a majority of Americans think government corruption is common, and along with Mr. Trump, Republican lawmakers campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp.”
Yet House Republicans were content to strip the Office of Congressional Ethics of its effectiveness. Established in 2008, the OCE is a small, independent body that stems from a raft of scandals among House members from both parties. It consists of a nonpartisan staff with oversight from a board appointed by Republicans and Democrats.
The proposal to gut it was submitted by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. It would have prohibited the OCE from investigating anonymous allegations, recommending criminal prosecutions or even having a spokesman unless the House Ethics Committee, which is controlled by the majority party, allowed it. Further, the House Ethics Committee would have been able to spike any investigation at any time.
Concerns by House members about unfair investigations have some merit, but lawmakers are hardly the victims they claim to be. Given their political power — power that it sometimes abused for personal gain — individuals with incriminating evidence against lawmakers would have good reason to seek anonymity.
Unfortunately, the quest to weaken ethics oversight in the House will likely resurface. Hopefully, however, lawmakers will reorder their legislative priorities and put the needs of the nation first.