Even after a “change” election, the best political outcome can sometimes be no change at all.
This seemed to be the case Tuesday when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives ended up preserving, for now, its system for probing member scandals.
Late Monday, on the eve of the new Congress, the GOP majority caucus decided behind closed doors to remove the independence of an ethics office created because of scandals.
The one-day turnaround from controversial change to keeping the status quo was a strange journey from start to finish.
At first, it must have sounded like a fine idea to the 119 House Republicans who voted for it, with 74 opposed.
Backlash soon set in. Here was a new Congress, before even voting on the rules of the session, taking care of the concerns of any members accused of wrongdoing.
The measure never drew public support from Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) or his lieutenants. Democrats and watchdog groups fiercely denounced it.
Then President-elect Donald Trump and his team cautiously waded in and said the change should not be made just now.
So a couple of hours later, the proposal was withdrawn.
Over its course, the episode included Orwell-style doublespeak from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the leading proponent of stripping independence from the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Goodlatte said his proposed amendment, which would have placed the office under the less-than-independent House Ethics Committee, would actually strengthen the drive toward ethics enforcement.
Goodlatte’s announcement was phrased as follows:
“The amendment builds upon and strengthens the existing OCE by maintaining its primary area of focus — accepting and reviewing constituent complaints — while improving upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify.”
Which basically meant new protections for the accused.
Republican Trump, whose vice president will be the Capitol-wise Sen. Mike Pence, tweeted about a number of topics early Tuesday before expressing opposition on this one.
He did so in a way worth reading closely.
“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!”
Earlier, however, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway was soft-selling the potential change when it looked as if it would go through.
“I don’t want your viewers to be left with the impression that there’s no mechanism to investigate ethics complaints, particularly ethics complaints that come from constituents,” Conway told MSNBC.
“I don’t want people to feel like ethics is gone.”
Once Trump said the shift shouldn’t be the lawmakers’ “number one” priority, spokesman Sean Spicer suggested again that timing was the issue.
“It’s not a question of strengthening or weakening [the independent ethics panel], I think it’s a question of priorities,” Spicer told reporters in a briefing.
The tweets and sound bites across the day didn’t settle the question of whether Trump or Ryan could agree on the controversial proposal at a later date.