We are reporting today on the muck of the Great Swamp—Washington's perceived corruption, which Donald Trump famously promised cheering crowds he'd drain starting on day one of his presidency.
On Monday, a majority of House Republicans ran-amok and seemed to be seeking to preserve the muck, not drain the Swamp. And so it was that they mangled their president-elect's message and, of course, their own. It was a most mind-boggling public display of how their once-Grand Old Party chose to spotlight itself just weeks before taking absolute control of our government.
The House Republicans, who spent a year demanding transparency from Democrat Hillary Clinton, voted secretly—without allowing any debate—to disarm and virtually disembowel the independent investigatory Office of Congressional Ethics, which was created in 2008 after a wave of corruption scandals involving prominent Republicans. They took a firm position on that, held it for half a news cycle—then deep-sixed it.
We'll get to all that happened—then abruptly un-happened—in this message-mangling flapdoodle. But first, we need to lift ourselves out of today's muck long enough to recall the monumental mess that led the then-Democrat-controlled Congress to create that office of independent ethics enforcement.
We'll start at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 11th Street NW. It is 2002 and an Orthodox Jewish gentleman named Jack Abramoff has just opened the only kosher restaurant and deli ever to grace that power road that stretches between the White House and Congress. Abramoff has already made quite a name for himself in the capital city—not so much for the fine briskets, corned beef, lox and bagels he serves his customers, but for the manner in which he established himself as a purveyor of pork and perks as a super-lobbyist who catered to powerful Capitol Hill Republicans and executive branch officials.
In 2008, Abramoff was convicted of federal corruption and tax crimes and was sentenced to four years in prison. The scandal, in which he was the lynchpin, resulted in 13 people pleading guilty to federal crimes. The crimes were widespread, and the misconduct was widely known on Capitol Hill—yet the regular congressional ethics committees were widely considered ineffective. That led an embarrassed House to establish its independent congressional ethics office.
But on Monday, the House Republican Conference convened and a majority of House Republicans caught House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy by surprise, as Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., proposed a rules amendment that would place the independent ethics office under the thumb of the House Ethics Committee. There was no debate; the rank-and-file steamrolled over the ineffectual objections of their leaders and gutted the independent ethics body.
The result of course was a mangling of what had been Trump's simple and most effective theme: Instead of draining Washington's corruption swamp, the House Republicans had just voted to return to the ineffectual enforcement of the old days, when corruption seemed to swamp the Swamp. That was the point of the lead story on The New York Times front page. (The Washington Post missed the importance and played the story on page A4.)
Now, we switch to our favorite intersection of the news media, policy and politics. Here we can clearly see how Washington's agendas are made, how Washington really works—and why it often doesn't. That lead story in the Times meant that the 24/7 all-news cable networks pounced on the story in the morning. And that prompted citizens in every state to start calling Republican representatives offices, voicing outrage at the idea that Republicans seemed suddenly trying to cover up ethical sleaze in politics. At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Trump tweeted, and suddenly, Republican run-amoks were all atwitter.
Trump tapped: "With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog their number one act and priority?"
The now-repentant Abramoff was back in vogue. He told Politico that "moving to diminish oversight is exactly the opposite of what Congress should be doing."
Suddenly, the House GOP steamroller had run out of steam. Ethics shmethics! They reversed their Monday mistake. Nothing would change.
Perhaps Democrats could borrow a page from Trump's paranoia playbook and suggest the House Republicans cleverly rigged the system—they decided to make Trump look good by cleverly looking ridiculous.
But no. Those House Republican rebels, whose ranks still include tea party types who have over-steeped their welcome, ought to adopt the most famous explanation by the most famous Great Swamp critter ever—Walt Kelly's iconic mid-20th century comic strip character, Pogo:
"We have met the enemy and he is us."