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Resisting the Congressional Watchdog

By       Message Bill Moyers       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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Co-written by *Michael Winship

The U.S. Capitol.
The U.S. Capitol.
(Image by (Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol))
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Mark Twain noted that man is the only animal that blushes -- or needs to. He also believed that "public office is private graft." Those two observations from our greatest and most sagacious humorist intersected with a bang on Capitol Hill Monday night, when the bright lights of the Republican House Conference met in secret behind closed doors at the end of the New Year's holiday.

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They tried to vote themselves an especially tasty treat: eviscerating the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). That's the office created in 2008 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and the placement of three congressmen behind bars. The conference voted to absorb it into the House Ethics Committee. In other words, they wanted to weaken OCE and put it under the control of some of the very folks the office is charged with investigating for possible influence peddling and other assorted mischief.

If the conference had its way, OCE would wind up having all the clout of the token student representative on your local board of education, giving unscrupulous legislators freedom to rob the public blind without fear of exposure.

But a funny thing happened on the way to congressional visions of new secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. The public can become like sheep when the shepherd is a demagogue, but when the public is outraged over outright unfairness and chicanery, it can roar like a lion. Once word of the vote leaked out, phone calls, emails and social media recriminations from all points of the political spectrum began flooding the sacred halls of the House of Representatives, which was once called The People's House before it became the predator's lair.

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Talk about embarrassment. Imagine this new Congress, pledged to "drain the swamp," taking as its first action a rule that in effect would have helped make the swamp part of the National Park Service.

The nonpartisan Project in Government Oversight (POGO), declared that OCE needed "to be strengthened and expanded -- not taken out back and shot in the middle of the night." So the GOP conference fled into another closed-door session and changed its mind. We were only kidding, they said. The Office of Congressional Ethics is alive and well -- until the next time we try to kill it.

Just before the meeting, our august President-elect bestowed the Congress with two of his imperial tweets. "With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it," read the first, followed by, "... may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! ?#DTS."

DTS stands for Drain the Swamp, of course, although we're sure many of our progressive brethren would prefer bawdier acronyms involving the President-elect himself. Nonetheless, many are claiming it was these very dispatches from fearless leader that turned the vote around. But read his words carefully: He's more concerned about bad timing; he has no great love for the OCE.

In fact, shortly before the tweets, his amanuensis Kellyanne Conway was telling George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America that "gutting it doesn't mean there won't be a mechanism" -- just that there had been "overzealousness in some of the processes over the years."

Most members of the House agree it was the public outcry that swiveled those usually obdurate minds on Capitol Hill; Trump merely once again displayed his ability to jump on the prevailing public sentiment or someone else's success and ride it to vainglory, like the story of the French revolutionary John F. Kennedy liked to tell: There go my people, the revolutionary said. I must find out their destination so I can lead them.

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Beware the Congress

In the end, what this New Year's imbroglio tells us is three things. First, it's a reminder once again of the mediocre caliber of too many of the men and women running for the House and Senate these days.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Oct. 29, 2016
Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Oct. 29, 2016
(Image by (Flickr Gage Skidmore))
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Bill Moyers is President of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.

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