Paul Ryan just failed his first test as Speaker of the House under a unified government


In the end, House Speaker Paul Ryan technically got what he wanted — but his victory was anything but flawless.

On Monday evening, the night before the 115th Congress was officially to begin, House Republicans met in secret to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog group that guards against misconduct.

At that meeting, Ryan, leader of the House GOP, spoke out against his own caucus' decision to gut the ethics office, reportedly opposing on the grounds that "there's a bipartisan way to better reform the office." 

But Ryan's argument fell on deaf ears. His fellow House Republicans had the numbers they needed to overrule their leader's objection. The vote to effectively dismantle the ethics office passed — until Tuesday, that is, when, after a deluge of bipartisan outrage that included Twitter admonishment from President-elect Donald Trump, House Republicans convened an emergency GOP meeting to scrap their scheme to gut the OCE.

Though the House GOP's plan was scuttled, experts say two images of it will linger: that of a ruling Republican Party that put attacking ethics regulations at the top of its to-do list; and that of a speaker of the House overruled by his own conference behind closed doors.

Alex Brandon/AP

"The question for the House GOP is whether the damage is done just by proposing and passing this among themselves: They've made a very clear statement of their enthusiasm for independent review of ethics violations in the lower chamber," said David Birdsell, Dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, who called the vote "an incredible blunder adopted at the worst possible time in the worst possible way."

"I don't believe this bodes well for [Ryan's] control over the House," Birdsell said.

"[Trump] has teed up a tremendous amount of controversy and scrutiny over self-dealing, even while promising to 'drain the swamp.' One would think that the legislature would have enjoyed seeing the klieg lights focused on other players, but this draws them right back to the Congress, with an utterly indefensible move. Add the naked partisanship — that it comes out of the [House GOP] caucus rather than some more plausibly bipartisan forum — and you get to own whatever ethical disasters emerge in the wake of this decision." 

"Would any speaker elect that strategy? I think not," Birdsell concluded.

Courtesy of Tom Rodgers

Tom Rodgers, an activist, consultant and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, has firsthand knowledge of how and why today's Congressional ethics regulations came to pass.

Rodgers blew the whistle on Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist whose double dealing while representing Native American tribes on gambling matters made his name synonymous with fraud more than a decade ago.

As the Hill reported in 2010, the stunning case "landed Abramoff and former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) in prison, helped force then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from office and played a key role in Democrats taking back the majority in the House and Senate in 2006. In the aftermath, Congress passed the most sweeping new ethics rules since Watergate."

"What struck me [was it seemed] like we had forgotten in such a short period of time all the destroyed lives, the careers, the families," Rodgers said of the decision to gut the committee created to check the previously unchecked corruption of the sort seen in the Abramoff affair.

Rodgers said while it seemed Ryan had tried to set his conference back on the right path, the House Speaker's leadership chops will now become the likely target of heightened and frequent scrutiny. 

"Does [a failure to control his party] become a pattern?" Rodgers asked. "What's that old saying? 'Once is happenstance, two is chance, three is enemy fire?'"