This editorial appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune on Wednesday:
The 2016 elections were replete with messages from Americans. The most obvious was the bipartisan anger over decades of middle-class wage stagnation. But President-elect Donald Trump also struck a chord with voters with his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington. The belief that lobbyists for the rich and powerful have undue influence over decisions made by Congress and government officials is pervasive. A 2014 Gallup poll showed 75 percent of Americans think government corruption is common. That percentage could be higher in 2017.
Why? For one thing, the House Republican Caucus’ 119-74 vote on Monday to sharply relax ethics rules — over the objections of Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — looks unbelievably dumb. The caucus reversed course Tuesday after being barraged by angry constituent phone calls and rebuked by President-elect Donald Trump for having the wrong priorities to start a new term. But the obliviousness of 119 GOP representatives — if not their names — is on the record.
The Republicans’ target was the Office of Congressional Ethics, a small, independent body established by the House in 2008 after a series of congressional scandals, including a particularly ugly bribery case that landed Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham in prison; some members investigated by the office found it to be overzealous and complained it was unfair. The proposal was to rename it the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and put it under control of the House Ethics Committee. It would not have been allowed to investigate anonymous allegations, recommend criminal prosecutions or have a spokesperson unless authorized by the Ethics Committee. The ethics panel, which consists solely of elected House members, would have been able to end any probe at any time.
There is no similar Senate office and appear to be few parallels in state legislatures. As such, at least in its conception, the Office of Congressional Ethics is one of the more admirable institutions in the federal government. If its independence and clout chafe House members, tough luck.
Unfortunately, it appears some lawmakers will try to gut the office again at some point this year. And by then, if Trump doesn’t drain his own swamp, he may have lost any leverage over GOP lawmakers to get them to back down. The list of potential conflicts of interest that he will have as president is long and won’t go away when he transfers ownership of his business interests to his children. The Washington Post reports that Trump owns 111 companies in 18 nations and territories. That list includes nations with poor to frayed relationships with the U.S. and/or poor to awful records on human rights, including China, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
It seems inevitable that how Trump treats these 18 nations and territories will be tied to how his family businesses are faring. It should be inevitable that a U.S. president figures out this is unacceptable. Instead, Trump himself blithely makes the link: “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” he said on the campaign trail. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
The House GOP caucus made a profound mistake Monday night. But when it comes to ethics and the federal government, there’s a high risk the Trump White House will make this mistake a forgotten historical footnote.