Republicans ushered in the new era of full right-wing control of government by proposing to neuter the Office of Congressional Ethics, and then backing down in the face of unexpectedly intense media opposition. That they would even attempt such a brazen maneuver makes it worth bearing in mind just how central a role political ethics has played in their public discourse over the last decade. Republicans blamed their loss of Congress in 2006 on a wave of corruption scandals — Mark Foley, Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney, and many others — rather than on any policy failures. “If you look at the exit polling, the No. 1 issue, particularly among swing voters, was corruption and behavior,” said Karl Rove following the 2006 midterms. “After Foley, people said, ‘It’s just too much.’ After that, spending was the No. 2 issue.” Representative Tom Coburn insisted, “This election was not a rejection of conservative principles per se, but a rejection of corrupt, complacent, and incompetent government.”
The off-loading of the party’s failures onto a few bad actors absolved it of any serious introspection. Indeed, conservatives eventually decided that the Bush administration’s agenda of fanatical tax cutting and deregulation, which they had celebrated at the time, if anything had abandoned the true conservative faith. The idiosyncratic scandals were a lesson, and by losing power, the party deemed the lessons to have been learned. The putatively reformed Republicans made ethics a central theme of their opposition to the Obama administration. Conservatives were quickly consumed with indignation at the disgusting sight of finance veterans being allowed to serve in the administration and interest group bargaining over legislation. “If a Republican administration, staffed with cronies from Goldman Sachs and Citibank, were cutting special deals for its political allies, I suspect we’d be hearing fewer FDR analogies and more nouns ending with the suffix ‘gate,’” wrote National Review’s Jonah Goldberg in early 2009. (Yes, imagine! Goldman veterans and special deals for allies!) Of course, Trump himself used Hillary Clinton’s ethical shortcomings as his central campaign theme.
And yet it should hardly come as a surprise that Republicans would make it their first order of business to take down the ethics watchdog. After George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, House Republicans immediately voted to weaken the ethics committee. And when the Democrat-controlled House voted to create the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008, it did so over the almost-unanimous objections of the Republican caucus. “If you have a single ounce of self preservation, you will vote ‘no,’” said GOP Representative Todd Tiahrt, and most of his party did, voting 159-33 against creating the new office.
Crippling the ethics office is the restoration of longstanding party principle. Indeed, Donald Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway explains the office has been guilty of “overzealousness” in its ethics enforcement. The incoming Trump administration is already engaged in self-enrichment on a staggering scale, and Republicans in Congress have displayed no interest whatsoever in asserting any oversight over the potential for graft. The party is instead working cooperatively to dismantle any mechanisms for accountability or self-restraint.
What is most telling is how little complaint Trump’s behavior has generated on the right. Yes, some peeps of protest have been uttered; The Wall Street Journal published one editorial urging Trump to sell off his business, but it based its case entirely on the need to protect Trump from unfair “political damage,” without considering the possibility that he might actually do something unethical. The Journal, like most conservatives, has left the subject alone since. Trump objected to a decision by House Republicans who have given him complete latitude for his non-disclosure of income taxes and refusal to sell his business empire.
Republicans loaded the entire weight of the failure of the last Republican-controlled government onto ethical shortcomings, then used the issue to regain power, and are now rapidly dismantling safeguards against corruption in the Executive and Legislative branches. The distinction between kleptocracy and conservatism matters enormously to conservatives when they have no political power. When they do have power, the distinction collapses. And so a new era of corruption begins.
This post has been updated to reflect new information.