“Let us not be timid,” Paul Ryan exhorted members of the House on Tuesday, moments after 239 Republicans had, in near-unanimous fashion, re-elected him as speaker. He was girding his party for what he called “the opportunity of a lifetime”—the chance to remake Washington under President-elect Donald Trump and unified Republican control of government.
Ryan needn’t have worried about his members’ gumption: They had committed their first act of political overreach before the 115th Congress was even sworn in.
The night before, a majority of House Republicans had voted behind closed doors to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, a decade-old independent body that had arisen out of the last era of GOP scandal. They had acted against the better judgment of their leaders, including Ryan, who had accurately warned them that such a move would undermine the party’s effort to open the new Congress in a mood of unity and optimism. A predictable uproar ensued, and with a modest push from Trump, Republican lawmakers hastily reconvened to rescind their amendment barely five minutes before the 115th Congress gaveled into session.
The episode was, in a sense, a test of political boundaries for a party that sees itself as having won a broad mandate from the voters. If Trump could get away with all manner of offensive comments, damaging revelations, ethical malfeasance and still get elected president, what would stop lawmakers from neutering a pesky ethics office that had ensnared many of them (and Democrats, too!) in investigations? As it turned out, Trump’s victory did not mean the end of public scrutiny; it did not immunize politicians from nasty headlines or angry phone calls, emails, and tweets.