The Situational Ethics of the Republican Party

The same members of Congress who are famous for burning through millions in taxpayer dollars "investigating" Planned Parenthood, Benghazi, and emails, emails, emails are deeply concerned about the "fairness" of the ethical rules applied to their own conduct.

Republicans have claimed they want to "drain the swamp," whatever that means. But Speaker Paul Ryan and others don't seem too bothered by GOP efforts to abrogate laws and ethical principles with impunity. Who needs independent investigations! Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

With the New Year’s Baby hardly out of its first diaper, the House GOP decided this week that if they consider ethical standards of conduct to be overly constraining or “unfair” as relates to their own actions, they just don’t need to be ethical. Ever. The governing doctrine now seems to be “ethics for thee but not for me.”

In other words, the same members who are famous for holding endless spurious hearings reminiscent of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s; ruining the reputations of countless people for political sport; and burning through millions in taxpayer dollars “investigating” Planned Parenthood, Benghazi, and emails, emails, emails are very, very deeply concerned about the “fairness” of the ethical rules applied to their own conduct.

During a closed-door meeting on Monday, House Republicans voted 119 to 74 to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent body that reviews and investigates allegations of misconduct against members of Congress as well as officers and staff. The office was established in 2008 after several high-profile cases of corruption were made public, at which point it became clear that the office was necessary to restore public trust and to ensure members of Congress would be held accountable in such instances.

The House GOP this week quickly reversed its not-so-secret plan to gut the office when news of its vote provoked a widespread public outcry—including a deluge of calls and emails from constituents and government watchdogs across the ideological spectrum—and extensive media coverage. Oh, and after that started happening, President-elect Donald Trump also posted a tweet chastising the GOP for the timing of the vote.

Speaker Paul Ryan, however, made clear that it really was just the timing, not the concept, of the effort that was a problem. “After eight years of operation, many members believe the Office of Congressional Ethics is in need of reform to protect due process and ensure it is operating according to its stated mission. I want to make clear that this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the Office will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress,” Ryan said in a statement.

Why is it in need of reform? Because, according to the GOP, in holding members of Congress accountable to rules of ethical conduct, the office is “unfair.”

The effort to gut the office of ethics was led by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, who might possibly have reason to be concerned about ethics investigations. The Washington Post reports that during his re-election bid last year, his Democratic opponent accused him of a conflict of interest “because his wife owns stock in Roanoke Gas Company, and sits on its board of the company, which could benefit from an interstate pipeline under federal review.”

Furthermore, if you think of ethical behavior as exemplified by a commitment to telling the truth and to not falsely accusing people of crimes they did not commit, then Goodlatte has a rather large problem with ethics—albeit not the kind investigated by the OCE. As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte launched a bogus investigation into the handling of fetal tissue donations by Planned Parenthood, perpetuating unfounded, discredited claims based on illegally obtained video footage. That investigation has spurred an ongoing witch hunt costing cost taxpayers more than a million dollars and continued by other committees, the leaders of which also are apparently unperturbed by the ethical implications of their actions. Goodlatte also has repeatedly used junk “science” to bolster claims for restricting women’s access to health care, which would seem … unethical to me.

Meanwhile, according to Rep. Steve King (R-IA), the office is “unfair” because “it has damaged or destroyed a lot of political careers in this place, and it’s cost members of Congress millions of dollars to defend themselves against anonymous allegations.” King, too, would seem an odd person to rely on claims of “unfairness” in his complaints about the ethics office, given that he has questioned whether people of color had ever really made any contributions to civilization, claimed he never heard of a young person “becoming pregnant from statutory rape or incest,” and participated in spreading outright lies about Planned Parenthood as part of the broader effort to deny women health care.

“There’s been numerous examples, and we heard some of them in there today, of members who have falsely been accused by this group who had to spend a fortune to have their good name restored,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), who said he also supported the measure to gut the office. “I think there has been an abuse.”

Rogers, another bastion of ethical behavior, has been listed by the the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington as “one of the most corrupt” members of Congress; named the “prince of pork” for his heavy reliance on special spending projects for his own district; and investigated for taking kickbacks. It’s clear why he might want to render the ethics office toothless.

Even Trump joined the whining, tweeting that the office is “unfair to the House.” Given the massive number of ethical conflicts Trump confronts even before he takes the oath of office, he may not be the best arbiter of how to hold public officials accountable for their conduct.

Not a single representative provided a legitimate example of the ways in which the office had been “unfair.” Moreover, it is not clear how “fairness” would be increased by subsuming the independent office under a partisan House committee. What is clear is that the changes originally proposed—and likely to resurface in the not-too-distant future—would keep the public and the press in the dark about House members’ ethics violations and let members themselves decide whether investigations occur in the first place.

The proposed changes would conveniently shield members from having their ethical violations made public while they continue their obviously soundly ethical efforts to deprive millions of people of health care; destroy Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security; and eliminate reproductive health services.

And, oh … while they ethically fail to insist that Trump release his tax returns, ethically refuse to investigate Vladimir Putin’s involvement in the presidential election, and ethically look the other way as Trump enriches himself in direct conflict with the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

Republicans have claimed they want to “drain the swamp,” whatever that means. Their swamp is clearly filled with the crocodile tears of GOP members who want to abrogate laws and ethical principles with impunity. Who needs independent investigations!

Ally Boguhn contributed to reporting for this piece.