Facing fierce criticism from members of both parties -- including President-Elect Donald Trump -- House Republicans backed down Tuesday from an initial attempt to gut an independent ethics office that investigates House lawmakers and staff accused of misconduct.The decision to scrap changes to the ethics office came during an emergency GOP conference meeting Tuesday morning.
Last night, House Republicans met behind closed doors and agreed to gut their own ethics rules. The vote, for which there was no roll call, was 119 to 74, and by all accounts, the GOP leadership opposed making the change.The blowback was as quick as it was intense. Of the 119 members who voted for the ethics overhaul, only a few were willing to publicly defend the change -- or even acknowledge having voted for it. Coverage was brutal, members' phones were reportedly ringing quite a bit this morning, and even Donald Trump, the ethically challenged president-elect, suggested his party's timing was unwise.And with this in mind, just a half-day after adopting their own plan, House Republicans reversed course.
The agreement to drop the plan was reportedly reached by unanimous consent -- which means the 119 House Republicans who voted for this last night, in effect, declared, "Never mind."This is a pretty brutal fiasco on literally the first day of the new Republican Congress. Screwing up this badly, in such a high-profile way, takes quite a bit of effort.There are multiple angles to a story like this one, but here are just a few key elements to keep in mind:* Shame works. Most of the time, Trump seems immune to shame and public pressure, but this morning is a reminder that congressional Republicans occasionally care about public humiliation. Had there not been a public backlash, there's little doubt the rules gambit would have been approved by the House GOP majority.And in the process, an interesting precedent has been set. If there are similar public backlashes when Republicans consider gutting health care plans, eliminating Wall Street safeguards, slashing tax rates on billionaires, or any number of other far-right priorities, just how far will GOP members stick out their necks to pursue unpopular ideas? This debacle over ethics serves as a reminder of what pressure can do.* It's not over. Trump's modest pushback against changing the ethics rules had nothing to do with the substance and everything to do with the timing. Why is that important? Because House Republicans have shelved last night's plan, but that doesn't mean GOP members can't bring back the idea when they think no one's looking.* The leadership challenge. House Republican leaders urged their members not to pursue this, but rank-and-file GOP lawmakers did it anyway. For six years, there have been tensions between the Republican leadership and its radicalized members, and those tensions haven't gone away.This creates all kinds of challenges, and not just for the Speaker's office. If you're Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell, and you want to work out a deal with the House, who do you negotiate with? If Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy aren't calling the shots in the lower chamber, who is?* History repeats itself. Twelve years ago, after Republicans won a clean sweep, their first action was to weaken their own congressional ethics rules. Soon after, in the face of public pressure, they reversed course on some measures.History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.