Resisting the Congressional Watchdog

Not that political corruption doesn’t happen with divided government, but with Republicans controlling all three branches, the prospects for more Abramoff-type scandals rise, warn Bill Moyers and Michael Winship.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Mark Twain noted that man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to. He also believed that “public office is private graft.” Those two observations from our greatest and most sagacious humorist intersected with a bang on Capitol Hill Monday night, when the bright lights of the Republican House Conference met in secret behind closed doors at the end of the New Year’s holiday.

The U.S. Capitol. (Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol)

They tried to vote themselves an especially tasty treat: eviscerating the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). That’s the office created in 2008 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and the placement of three congressmen behind bars. The conference voted to absorb it into the House Ethics Committee. In other words, they wanted to weaken OCE and put it under the control of some of the very folks the office is charged with investigating for possible influence peddling and other assorted mischief.

If the conference had its way, OCE would wind up having all the clout of the token student representative on your local board of education, giving unscrupulous legislators freedom to rob the public blind without fear of exposure.

But a funny thing happened on the way to congressional visions of new secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. The public can become like sheep when the shepherd is a demagogue, but when the public is outraged over outright unfairness and chicanery, it can roar like a lion. Once word of the vote leaked out, phone calls, emails and social media recriminations from all points of the political spectrum began flooding the sacred halls of the House of Representatives, which was once called The People’s House before it became the predator’s lair.

Talk about embarrassment. Imagine this new Congress, pledged to “drain the swamp,” taking as its first action a rule that in effect would have helped make the swamp part of the National Park Service.

The nonpartisan Project in Government Oversight (POGO), declared that OCE needed “to be strengthened and expanded — not taken out back and shot in the middle of the night.” So the GOP conference fled into another closed-door session and changed its mind. We were only kidding, they said. The Office of Congressional Ethics is alive and well — until the next time we try to kill it.

Just before the meeting, our august President-elect bestowed the Congress with two of his imperial tweets. “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,” read the first, followed by, “… may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! ?#DTS.”

DTS stands for Drain the Swamp, of course, although we’re sure many of our progressive brethren would prefer bawdier acronyms involving the President-elect himself. Nonetheless, many are claiming it was these very dispatches from fearless leader that turned the vote around. But read his words carefully: He’s more concerned about bad timing; he has no great love for the OCE.

In fact, shortly before the tweets, his amanuensis Kellyanne Conway was telling George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America that “gutting it doesn’t mean there won’t be a mechanism” – just that there had been “overzealousness in some of the processes over the years.”

Most members of the House agree it was the public outcry that swiveled those usually obdurate minds on Capitol Hill; Trump merely once again displayed his ability to jump on the prevailing public sentiment or someone else’s success and ride it to vainglory, like the story of the French revolutionary John F. Kennedy liked to tell: There go my people, the revolutionary said. I must find out their destination so I can lead them.

Beware the Congress

In the end, what this New Year’s imbroglio tells us is three things. First, it’s a reminder once again of the mediocre caliber of too many of the men and women running for the House and Senate these days.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Oct. 29, 2016 (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

All too often, people of public spirit who would make ideal candidates are discouraged from running by the horrors of perpetual fundraising — the vise of money in politics — not to mention the spotlight shone on every small detail of their personal and professional lives. Many of the people who wind up taking the bit and running are soulless empty suits, in it for the power and the payoffs during and after tenure. Or they’re already rich in the first place.

Which leads us to the second thing: venality, so often hand-in-hand with mediocrity. All indications are that our incoming president regards the White House as a pirate galleon built to increase his family’s trove of plunder many fold, and the notion seems to be rubbing off on Congress. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni asked, “Is it any wonder that House Republicans felt OK about trying to slip free of some of their own ethical shackles, no matter how ugly the optics? …

“It’s the tone that Trump has set and the culture that he’s creating. He operates with an in-your-face defiance, so these House Republicans did, too. He puts his own desires and comfort first, so they reserved the right to do the same. With more than a few of his Cabinet picks, he demonstrated little sense of fidelity to what he promised voters and even less concern about appearances. House Republicans decided to treat themselves to a taste of that freedom.”

Third, we have to keep ever vigilant. Other anti-democratic measures inserted in the same rules package slipped past the public. The first imposes a fine on House members taking photos or video in the chamber — a petty, vindictive, retroactive slap to those lawmakers who last June sat-in to protest Congress’ refusal to take action on gun control. You’ll recall that after Republicans quickly adjourned and cut off the C-SPAN cameras, the protesting members, led by Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights legend, used their cell phones to send out video and keep the story alive.

Even worse, the new rules allow not just members of Congress to subpoena and question officials and citizens; it extends that fearsome power to staff members, opening the door to witch hunts and persecutions that could make Benghazi and Clinton’s emails seem like a stroll in the park. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, ranking member of the House Rules Committee, said, “Freely handing out the power to compel any American to appear, sit in a room, and answer staff’s invasive questions on the record — without members even being required to be present — is truly unprecedented, unwarranted and offensive.”

Every battle won’t be won. Nonetheless, the public DID manage to keep the House GOP from surreptitiously murdering the Office of Congressional Ethics, and that’s proof we can make a difference if we keep the pressure on and hammer home our resistance and opposition when democracy and liberty are threatened.

The problem, neatly summarized as usual by Mark Twain, is that, “To lodge all power in one party and keep it there is to insure bad government and the sure and gradual deterioration of the public morals.” This week, we got a vigorous, healthy and inspiring reminder that protest matters. Keep that in mind as the perfidies unfold this year under the one-party monopoly that will soon control our federal government.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. [This article originally appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/protest-stopped-predators-will-back/]

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12 comments for “Resisting the Congressional Watchdog

  1. Jay
    January 6, 2017 at 11:24 am

    And a week or two ago, albeit not at Consortium News, Winship and Moyers were both pushing the Russian hacked the DNC claims–they were published by the likes of Alternet, Salon, etc.

    Therefore, they destroyed their credibility even if what they happen to write in this case checks out as reasonably valid. I am surprised to see them published, or republished, here at Consortium News.

    Once in a while the infamous Michael Gordon of the NY Times will do some reasonably honest reporting in that paper, but of course he is no longer a legitimate reporter after partnering with Judith Miller, of the NY Times, to sell the invasion of Iraq. (Then of course there are his various lies about Syria, Ukraine, and in 2007 Iran operating in Iraq.) Yes, Winship and Moyers are now in that company. And until they issue, in print, a retraction of their Russian hacking claims, they are not going to be taken seriously.

    No, Moyer’s long respectable career as a reasoned liberal voice does not give him a pass. He has effectively destroyed his reputation by joining in the McCarthyte Russian hacking garbage.

    • Zachary Smith
      January 6, 2017 at 4:50 pm

      Good point about their hacking story. After a search i found this:

      There are lots of reasons why Hillary Clinton lost and Donald Trump won, but the hacking of our election by Russia’s Vladimir Putin is the most frightening.

      http://billmoyers.com/story/trump-putin-white-house/

      Like with Clapper, credibility is a fragile thing. Once it’s gone…..

      • rosemerry
        January 7, 2017 at 5:30 pm

        You are completely correct-I could hardly read the serial lies put together in the link, and stopped after the reference to the previous ambassador who has demonstrated his hatred of all things Russian so forcefully. How could Moyers stoop so low after his illustrious career? A bit like John Kerry in a different field??

  2. Zachary Smith
    January 6, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    DTS stands for Drain the Swamp, of course, although we’re sure many of our progressive brethren would prefer bawdier acronyms involving the President-elect himself.

    Cute. And not exactly suitable for a ‘scholarly’ piece.

    All indications are that our incoming president regards the White House as a pirate galleon built to increase his family’s trove of plunder many fold, and the notion seems to be rubbing off on Congress.

    This from a member of Lyndon Johnson’s Administration? Roger Stone tends to get carried away on all types of topics, but this is something he said:

    “The reality of LBJ was that he was a mean, cruel, sadistic man whose corruption was of Biblical proportions.”

    No link – Mr. Stone was a bit over the top with a lot of what he said in the piece this came from. Trump may yet turn out to be a disaster “of Biblical proportions” too, but he hasn’t yet killed 50,000+ Americans and millions of Vietnamese in a stupid and mindless war.

    • backwardsevolution
      January 6, 2017 at 5:15 pm

      “All indications are that our incoming president regards the White House as a pirate galleon built to increase his family’s trove of plunder many fold.”

      All indications? What are they?

      Wouldn’t your sentence more accurately describe the Clinton’s? Their eyes were glazing over at the thought of the plunder! After all, Hillary even plundered the White House on her way out the door (after Slick Willy’s presidency), she plundered with the Clinton Foundation, with all the scandalous crimes ending in “gate” the Clinton’s were involved in. Plunder, plunder, plunder.

      And yet Trump supposedly regards the White House as a pirate galleon? LMAO.

    • Bill Bodden
      January 6, 2017 at 9:47 pm

      “The reality of LBJ was that he was a mean, cruel, sadistic man whose corruption was of Biblical proportions.”

      Lyndon B. Johnson sold the crew of the USS Liberty down the Mediterranean after Israeil air and naval forces tried to sink the ship and murder the crew by leading the coverup for Israel.- “LBJ Ordered the Death of US Servicemen” By Roger Stone – https://www.lewrockwell.com/2015/06/roger-stone/the-uss-liberty-and-lbj/

  3. backwardsevolution
    January 6, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    “Trump merely once again displayed his ability to jump on the prevailing public sentiment or someone else’s success and ride it to vainglory, like the story of the French revolutionary John F. Kennedy liked to tell: There go my people, the revolutionary said. I must find out their destination so I can lead them.”

    You don’t know this! Perhaps Trump DID think there were other more important issues to deal with.

    I could also hear Mark Twain saying (he probably already did in some fashion): Beware those who want to take your eyes off the ball. I did not hear Moyers or Winship screaming (yes, screaming) about pay-to-play and the Clinton Foundation, about the contents of the DNC/Podesta emails, about Victoria Nuland, Benghazi, Libya, the attempt to overthrow yet another leader (Assad).

    Moyers and Winship accuse Trump of: “I must find out their destination so I can lead them.”

    But are Moyers and Winship not guilty of this: “I must lead them to the destination I deem appropriate, the Russian hacking claims”? “Follow me,” said the Pied Piper, “and I will take you where I want you to go, far away from what I want you to see”?

    Jay, you are right. A full on-air apology and a huge retraction might help some, but once trust is lost, it’s gone. Very hard to ever get it back.

  4. backwardsevolution
    January 6, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    “Even worse, the new rules allow not just members of Congress to subpoena and question officials and citizens; it extends that fearsome power to staff members, opening the door to witch hunts and persecutions that could make Benghazi and Clinton’s emails seem like a stroll in the park. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, ranking member of the House Rules Committee, said, “Freely handing out the power to compel any American to appear, sit in a room, and answer staff’s invasive questions on the record — without members even being required to be present — is truly unprecedented, unwarranted and offensive.”

    Let’s face it, members of Congress have failed miserably at getting at the truth. They don’t want the truth. After all, it’s another member of Congress who’s sitting in the hot seat and they’re thinking, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” These are not ethical people (for the most part). They’re just hoping THEIR garbage doesn’t surface. Whenever matters are left up to members of Congress, hands end up getting slapped, at best.

    And just imagine what would happen if staff members actually asked some tough questions, got to the bottom of things, subpoenaed evidence. Why, the truth might actually surface.

    But let’s try to scare people with thoughts of “witch hunts” and “persecutions”. Let’s take their eyes off the ball again.

    Imagine having to answer “staff’s invasive questions on the record”. Oh, the inhumanity of it all! On the record?

    The only way to clean up Washington and drain the swamp is to ask “invasive” questions.

    • Bill Bodden
      January 6, 2017 at 9:50 pm

      The only way to clean up Washington and drain the swamp is to ask “invasive” questions.

      It would help if voters had higher standards and “None of the Above” was an option on the ballot.

  5. David F., N.A.
    January 6, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    As important as these social and civil wedge issues are, they are just distractions from what the Democrats and Republicans agree upon: mostly the economy and constitutional rights. I agree with Moyers and Winship’s concerns, but then they lose me when they reference the same people who are dismantling the heart of our civilization as representatives fighting for the American people. I think that the biggest deception of this duopoly is that we think that we have a dog in the fight. We don’t.

    (Since the Republican neocons have led us to believe that they have just recently joined the Democrat neocons, does Trump’s “unknown positions” (wink, wink) now create a triopoly?)

  6. rosemerry
    January 7, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    “First, it’s a reminder once again of the mediocre caliber of too many of the men and women running for the House and Senate these days.” This really hit me, a foreigner, as I have found it hard to believe that the ignorant and conceited “Representatives” eg Louie Gohmert, Trent Franks (R,Ariz) and Senators (McCain and LGraham are enough to give the idea) can be chosen(?) as candidates and elected time after time by rational human beings inhabiting a modern democratic State!!
    The whole system is so unfair, and no real choice is available for working people who want to be represented. If a great candidate like Ralph Nader stands for the Greens, but is vilified and not given genuine hope of election, what sort of country is it?

  7. Brad Benson
    January 9, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    Moyers and Winship are not progressives. They both supported a WAR CRIMINAL in the last election. No doubt, if I check their archives, I will find the bitter articles they wrote about pay for play in the Clinton Foundation. These guys don’t deserve to get their stuff published on a reputable site. Why not send them over to Huff Post or Salon where they belong.

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