Congress tries to sneak one past us

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Members of the House of Representatives gather on Tuesday as the 115th Congress gets under way.
Members of the House of Representatives gather on Tuesday as the 115th Congress gets under way. AP

Donald Trump slammed House Republicans under-cover-of-darkness move to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, and the renegades stood down. Yes, that Donald Trump.

Ethically challenged himself, Mr. Trump couldn’t help but see the firestorm of protest from both sides of the aisle and, more important, the citizenry, as a chance to come down on the side of right:

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 … may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS,” he tweeted.

The president-elect got it right.

It all began when looking to make a grand, muscle-flexing statement on Day One of the 115th Congress, House Republicans announced that they were stripping the ethics office of its independence. They made the decision in a closed-door meeting on Monday night, no advance notice, no public debate. Things go so much more smoothly that way, no?

Well, no.

First, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, were dead-set against the measure, to their credit. The measure would have created the Office of Congressional Complaint and tucked it away under the supervision of the House Ethics Committee, whose membership is evenly divided between the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s a problematic configuration, which has led to accusations that it’s weak and turns a blind eye to allegations of lawmakers’ misbehavior. The even split gives the members of either party, basically, a veto over committee action.

The OCE is independent and aggressive — overaggressive, says a bipartisan group of critics in Congress. Though it does not have subpoena power, it has a staff of investigators and is overseen by an outside board of six members, former politicians, public servants and a retired general. And the office has faced accusations of targeting minority congressional members. True, an internal overhaul of its workings may be in order. Two congressional Republican members from Miami, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, were among those supporting the House measure. In a statement to the Miami Herald, Ros-Lehtinen said there was “much-needed oversight and accountability.”

But a complete gutting is underhanded overkill.

Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Virginia, said the stealthy move would “strengthen” the OCE. Right, by smothering it under the powerful House Ethics Committee, which could then simply shut down any investigation.

Monday night, Republicans defied their leaders and pushed the measure through for a full vote the next day. But by the time the next day came, Democrats and Republicans were screeching in dissent. Americans made clear their disgust. And when Trump weighed in, the measure was dead.

So, who’s the boss of the House Republicans? They backhanded Ryan — and on the eve of his reelection as speaker — and folded when Mr. Trump unleashed a couple of tweets.

This is an unfortunate sign that the House majority just didn’t get it. Yes, the November elections were about change, but they also were about accountability.

Make no mistake, this Congress is poised to make mischief — dangerous, damaging mischief.