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House Republicans start 2017 on wrong foot

FILE- In this May 19, 2015, file photo,

FILE- In this May 19, 2015, file photo, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington. House Republicans on Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, voted to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics. Under the ethics change that was pushed by Goodlatte, the independent body would fall under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) Credit: AP

Did the House Republicans already suffer their first defeat of 2017? Or is their retreat only tactical and temporary?

After voting on Monday night to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics - with no advance warning - they backed off the decision Tuesday. The office is the independent body established by a new Democratic majority in 2008 in response to multiple scandals in the Republican-majority House.

From Monday night to Tuesday at noon, there was a media and Twitter firestorm, including tweets from President-elect Donald Trump, who opposed the timing of the scuttling of the ethics office, but not the substance of it.

To me, the House’s action raised fewer questions about ethical red flags than it did about the political strategy of the House GOP.

For some perspective, let’s step back and ask: Why should the House have any ethics oversight at all, let alone an independent role? After all, the voters can punish members who disgrace themselves. House members have to run every two years (compared with six years for the Senate). Plenty of politicians who get into trouble have chosen to resign rather than wait for the voters’ verdict, while many others have simply chosen not to run for re-election.

And for those whose scandals include breaking the law, separation-of-powers concerns haven’t prevented prosecutions.

Given all of those options, a separate internal ethics process isn’t really essential for protecting the nation from miscreants. Instead, it’s about protecting the reputation of the House - in particular, members of the majority party - from being tarred by the scandals tainting some of their colleagues.

It’s inevitable that at least a few of the 435 members of the House will get in trouble. After all, there is little serious vetting in most House elections. At best, local parties and the national party legislative committees can try to sink the campaign of a known ne’er-do-well. But press coverage and even opposition research (and the spending to back it up) are minimal in many House elections, and a party’s ability to gather information is limited.

Given this, it makes sense for the House to institute an ethics process serious enough so that when something goes wrong, the leadership - that is, the majority party - can claim to have dealt with it openly and forthrightly.

House Republicans learned this lesson the hard way in 2006, when a series of stories about mismanagement and corruption extended to Republicans as a whole.

By moving to weaken ethics procedures, Republicans produced a short-term public-relations mess on the opening day of the new Congress. Even worse, had they gone through with their plan (and they still might), they would have guaranteed that any misbehavior uncovered on any of their members would have been seen as the fault of the entire party, rather as an aberration.

The party seems incapable of heeding clear incentives and warning signs. Either the members believe themselves to be invulnerable to punishment by the electorate, or they are too incompetent to see the predictable results of their actions.

If House Republicans are that far removed from understanding the consequences of what they do, they’re going to botch a lot more than just ethics.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.