WASHINGTON – If you want to send a message, the first one is the most crucial.
House Republicans appeared to forget this simple notion about the power of first impressions when they moved to rein in the independent Office of Congressional Ethics created eight years ago – at least until they reversed course on Tuesday and decided to back off their plan.
The original vote was made during a GOP conference meeting behind closed doors Monday and was slated to be publicly voted on during the first day of the Republican-controlled 115th Congress. Before their stunning reversal Tuesday, House Republicans sought to rename the office, put it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee, prohibit it from employing a spokesman, and not allow the office, the Washington Post reported, to “investigate anonymous tips or refer criminal wrongdoing to prosecutors without the express consent of the Ethics Committee, which would gain the power to summarily end any OCE probe.”
But after criticism from a variety of parties, including ethics watchdogs, Democrats, and President-elect Donald Trump, they scrapped their plans. In two tweets Tuesday, Trump questioned why Republicans in Congress made it “their number one act and priority” to be “weakening” the ethics watchdog. Notably, however, he also referred to the OCE by saying “as unfair as it may be,” making his position on the OCE unclear. Several on Twitter pointed out that Trump was not necessarily opposing what Republicans were doing, but their decision to do it first.
So let’s be clear: Weakening a congressional oversight committee on ethics is likely to draw attention at any time, whether it’s agenda item one or 100.
But that doesn’t mean the Republicans’ initial attempt to put this first doesn’t matter at all.
Even if some kind of reforms to the group are needed, limiting its independence or powers should not be among them. The OCE, noted the Post’s Amber Phillips, is the first independent body to investigate ethics complaints about members of Congress, and is led by eight people – nonlawmakers appointed in equal number by the House’s top Republican and top Democrat.
When it was initially set up in 2008, while Democrats controlled the House, it came into being on a mostly party-line vote, with a majority of Republicans voting against it and Democrats for it. However, lawmakers in both parties have previously threatened to curtail its powers or eliminate it altogether, even though outside ethics groups say it helps improve accountability by eliminating the need for lawmakers to be solely responsible for judging their own peers.
To put weakening that capability at the top of any agenda sends a strong signal about what’s important. This is why new CEOs give so much attention to what their first moves will be at the top. Why new leaders talk about spending their first few weeks in power listening to their employees or their constituents. Why we focus so much on the “first 100 days” of any president.
It sets a tone for the tenure or the term that gives people a sense of what’s on the horizon. It draws the battle lines for the coming months and years, puts a stake in the ground for what the priorities are and provides a point of reference that people will repeatedly turn back to for measuring progress and achievements. It tells people what leaders think is most important.
Ethics oversight of our elected officials should be stronger and more independent, not weaker. Making changes to do that at any time is worrisome. Attempting to put it first – at least until they decided to back off – is even more so.
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