A dark and stormy night.

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The House GOP's Big Blunder

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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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 on 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 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.   

I'll leave the details to Sarah Mimms in Buzzfeed of what the move might have meant, but to me it 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. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net