Storm clouds hang over Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, as the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate stand at an...
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The lesson to be learned from the GOP’s ethics fiasco

By yesterday afternoon, much of the media establishment seemed eager to credit Donald Trump for House Republicans reversing course on their plan to gut their own ethics rules. In reality, however, that’s far too generous to the president-elect.

For one thing, Trump didn’t actually denounce the GOP plan itself. For another, as the Washington Post reported overnight, Republicans were already facing a fierce backlash before the president-elect started tweeting.
The 19 hours of tumult was set in motion the night before behind closed doors at the Longworth House Office Building, where Republican lawmakers decided over the objections of Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to amend House rules to effectively gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

They awoke Tuesday to an intense public outcry. Social media lit up with criticism of representatives trying to rein in the ethics office created a decade ago in the aftermath of scandals. Angry constituents inundated their representatives’ offices with calls of protest. Journalists peppered lawmakers with questions. The halls of the Capitol felt chaotic.
This matters for reasons that go far beyond giving credit where it’s due. The media rush to applaud Trump misses the more salient angle: congressional Republicans had a plan; Americans hated it; so GOP lawmakers backed down.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 1/2/17, 9:30 PM ET

House GOP moves to end independent ethics oversight of Congress

Ed O’Keefe, Washington Post congressional reporter, talks with Rachel Maddow about breaking news that House Republicans have moved to put the independent Office of Congressional Ethics under the House Ethics Committee, effectively scrapping the idea of…
Indeed, Google noted that searches for “who is my representative” jumped yesterday morning, just as phones started ringing in members’ offices. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa added that most of the GOP members he spoke to said the “blizzard of angry constituent calls” were the “most important factor” in getting House Republicans to reverse course yesterday.

And why is that so important? Because yesterday was literally the first day of the new Republican Congress, and there’s no reason the “blizzard of angry constituent calls” needs to stop.

Last month, some former Democratic congressional staffers published an online document called, “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.” The guide is a compelling overview on how to influence members of Congress, and while it includes all kinds of useful advice, note what it says at the bottom of page 4: “Calls are a light lift but can have an impact. Organize your local group to barrage your [members of Congress] at an opportune moment about and on a specific issue.”

Let’s not overstate matters: phone calls alone will not get the House and Senate, dominated by radicalized Republicans, to suddenly start acting responsibly. But yesterday offered a proof of concept: GOP members pushed a bad idea, which they dropped quite quickly in the face of public pressure.

This has happened before – some Republicans were open to gun background checks, for example, right up until NRA members started calling members’ offices in droves – and it can happen again. The moral of the story is that Democrats and progressive voters in general need not be angry spectators for the next two-to-four years. The more they get off the couch and remain engaged, the greater their impact will be.

Congress and House Republicans

The lesson to be learned from the GOP's ethics fiasco