How Donald Trump undermined Paul Ryan and showed D.C. who's boss
The House ethics debacle reveals where power really lies in D.C.
The first fracas of 2017 provides a useful template for how politics is likely to proceed in the Trump era.
On Monday night, in a vote taken behind closed doors, the House Republican Conference decided to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, eliminating many of its powers and putting its successor entity under the control of the House Ethics Committee (which is staffed entirely by members of Congress). The uproar was fierce and immediate, not only from the Democrats (who created the body in 2008 in response to the escalating ethical problems of the Hastert/DeLay era), but from reform-minded conservatives and independents as well.
Lo and behold, Congress got the message, and by mid-day Congress had scrapped its plans — at least for now.
But what exactly was the message?
Well, consider how the drama has affected the various players.
Donald Trump looks like a champion of clean government (though the OCE would have had no power to investigate his Executive branch) and the interests of the people, while still suggesting that he understands the motivations of those who voted to undermine the office. If the House GOP had any intention to hold Trump to account for corruption, they just made it that much harder for themselves.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, an average Republican congressman from a safe Virginia seat, is going to have his name in the papers for a while as the poster boy for lax ethics enforcement. But his colleagues — many of whom understandably have little love for the office he aimed to cripple — will remember him as the fellow who stood up for their interests. He'll make friends, not lose them, as a consequence of his actions. The members who voted with him, meanwhile, won't ever be known unless they want to be.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, on the other hand, officially opposed the measure, but was overruled by his own caucus. Then, when the measure passed, he defended the proposed changes that he had opposed in conference. And finally, after Trump's Twitter attack, he saw his caucus fold in the face of popular opposition from both the left and the right. He is exposed as somebody unable to convince his people to follow his political advice, while Trump looks fearsome — not least because he is capable of co-opting Democratic criticisms without being deemed treasonous.
Ryan's caucus members know, in other words, where the power really lies, and it isn't in the speaker's office. And Ryan knows that as well.
That has policy implications. Ryan, though he operates pragmatically, is a fundamentally ideological politician, someone who came to Washington to enact a specific policy agenda. But Trump is not really a Republican or a conservative. He owes neither the GOP nor the conservative movement anything. His brand is completely independent — and while he's very unpopular for a president-elect, he's significantly more popular than the GOP Congress.
Trump has appointed numerous rock-solid conservatives to his Cabinet — to education, to health and human services, to energy. He's given indications to Ryan that he can take the lead in writing a bill to cut entitlements (something Trump promised to prevent during his campaign). But precisely because these choices were telegraphed as gestures to traditional conservatives, if they prove unpopular they are easy for Trump to disavow, dumping the blame on Congress — and on Ryan in particular. And of course if they prove popular and successful, Trump will gladly take the credit.
Most fundamentally, the message was a reminder to Republicans in Congress that they owe far more to Trump than Trump does to them — and that he can safely do them far more damage than they dare to do to him. That congressional Republicans gave Trump such an easy opportunity shows how much they still have to learn about the shape of politics in the Trump era — or how confident they are that they can always offer their speaker as a sacrifice if the winds begin to turn.
As for the Democrats, the lesson is that the GOP Congress is more exposed than Trump is. Their best chance of winning back a share of national power in 2018 will come from fracturing the fragile alliance between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Now we'll see who learns to play by the new rules first.