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Do Voters Care About Ethics?

In this week’s politics chat, we try to make sense of the aborted effort by House Republicans to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome to the first politics chat of 2017, everyone! Nate is off somewhere vacationing, so we’re joined today instead by our managing editor, David! Today’s topic: Do Americans care about ethics in politics?

We’re talking about this because in the last 24 hours, Republicans almost gutted the main ethical safeguard in the House. News is just breaking that they’re backing off that — Clare, can you give us a quick timeline of this craziness?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer):

  • Monday night, the House Republican caucus voted to “gut”/“eviscerate”/visceral adjective of choice the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. The office, which was created in 2008, would have basically lost its independent investigative power. The GOP leadership, including Speaker Paul Ryan, had apparently argued against the move behind closed doors.
  • There was an outcry.
  • This morning, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that congressional Republicans shouldn’t be focusing on this right now.
  • And Tuesday afternoon, Republicans decided in an emergency conference meeting to renege on their proposal to get rid of the office.

That’s slightly long-winded, but it basically has a similar storyline to a middle school breakup that occurs via phone at night and then both parties make up during study hall. We’re back to status quo at this point. (David Firestone, managing editor): But this is a change only in timing, not intent. They’re probably going to come back, perhaps in just a few weeks, and delete the ethics office.

micah: What makes you say that?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Right, I think we should say that Trump himself was only really talking about the timing in his tweet. Also, The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reports that they could revisit the issue soon. The eagerness to make this move, despite the obvious problems in what Washington loves to call “optics,” shows how much many members hate this office. And it’s not just Republicans.

micah: OK, so before we get to how issues of ethics are treated in politics generally, let’s spend a little time on that and other things we might glean from this episode.

Why were they so eager to gut this office? The office was empowered to investigate any complaint about a House member, whether anonymously from the public or even from a newspaper investigation. House members hated that. They thought that it was subject to politics or personal vendettas and that they could be smeared by an opponent just for being investigated. But that’s not really what happened. The office turned out to be pretty good about choosing what to look into, even if the investigations were eventually dismissed by the House Ethics Committee.

micah: And it could release its investigative findings even if they aren’t pursued by the House Ethics Committee, right? Yes. That’s because the power to embarrass a member is an important disincentive to unethical behavior. It can be much more powerful than actual sanctions imposed by the committee, which rarely happened.

clare.malone: Congress is a shame culture! And shame may be the only thing that really works.


micah: So what about the fact that the GOP leadership in the House was apparently against doing this from the jump, but Republican members passed the rule change anyway. Isn’t that unusual?

clare.malone: I mean, the Republican caucus has been pretty unruly in its behavior toward leadership in the past few years, right?

micah: Former House Speaker John Boehner would probably agree with that, yes.

harry: How about the fact that Kevin McCarthy couldn’t even become speaker? Extremely. And if nothing else, this sends a strong message to Ryan and McCarthy and the other leaders. The caucus will still exercise its will, no matter the proprieties of the leadership, even if the caucus is willing to back down a bit on unfortunate timing.

micah: Let’s talk Trump’s role in all this real quick. Did he help save the House ethics office? No.

micah: That’s pretty definitive. His tweet made it clear he agreed with what the caucus wanted to do. He just thought the timing would interfere with his agenda.

harry: It seems they were reversing course already. It will be pretty amusing if the narrative becomes “Trump saved an ethics office” given his issues with the truth and potential conflicts of interest.

clare.malone: House Republicans’ move is very … off-brand for the new Trumpian Republican Party — drain the swamp and all that. This makes me all the more interested in his upcoming press conference — Jan. 11, right, Micah? I want to hear if he lays out a plan for what he wants to see pursued first in Congress.

micah: Kellyanne Conway says Jan. 11, yes.

clare.malone: Remember when there was supposed to be a Dec. 15 press conference about conflicts of interest?

harry: I think it’s quite plausible that this becomes the narrative. It’s pretty easy, right? House GOP was going to gut ethics. Trump says he doesn’t like it. Later that morning, House GOP backs down.

micah: I’m sure Trump will push that narrative. Trump did list a mini-agenda in his ethics tweet: tax reform and health care. It’s not hard to figure out what his priorities are.

micah: So, is the GOP backtracking evidence that Americans take ethics in politics super seriously? What do we know about this? “Ethics” as a concept is not high on the public’s list. But for House members in tough races, these allegations can be serious.

harry: I don’t want to jump too far ahead here, but corruption is an issue that tends to be non-partisan. No one likes it.

clare.malone: There is certainly a perception that Congress is corrupt — people disapprove of Congress broadly as a cesspool of graft, etc., but they are more likely to approve of their own representative more. Here’s an old list of some of what the Office of Congressional Ethics investigated. These are the kinds of things that voters understand and hate: accepting free plane tickets, getting government contracts for relatives, getting a bogus property tax exemption.

harry: Well, one of Trump’s signal issues was dealing with corruption in government, and he seemed to win against Hillary Clinton on the issue.


You saw Clinton having to constantly defend herself on the trail and Trump continually saying he was going to drain the swamp. And while it’s silly to say that won him the election, his own voters seemed to love that message. He won the “can bring change” vote by nearly 70 percentage points.

micah: And it’s safe to say the perception that Clinton was corrupt hurt her?

clare.malone: I would say so.

micah: Actually, do we know there was that perception?

clare.malone: The idea is that once you’ve been “in the bubble” for a certain period of time, you’re on the take.

harry: Well, we know that the number of voters who saw her as honest and trustworthy was consistently low. Although that was often used as an official reason to hate Clinton, for people already inclined in that direction. If you hated what Clinton did with the Clinton Foundation, but had no problem with Trump’s business conflicts and refusal to release tax returns, you’re in a strange ethical valley.

harry: And in the final month of the campaign, it seems like she was hurt by FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress and Wikileaks, both of which were suffused with ethical questions.

micah: But on the flip side, there were a ton of ethical questions surrounding Trump — sexual assault/harassment allegations, taxes, Trump University, etc. — and he won, so what are we to make of that?

clare.malone: One of the holy mysteries of this election. I don’t think it was ever really about Clinton’s “ethics.”

micah: Then how do you explain the late, Comey-letter-timed drop? Those voters hadn’t made up their minds after a yearlong, very public campaign. At that point, I would argue, they needed an excuse to vote for Trump, who didn’t sit all that well with them, and the FBI’s imprimatur was the final justification they were looking for.

clare.malone: I think people were concerned about her ethics insofar as they perceived her as seeing herself as above rules, right?

micah: Or maybe they cared more about ethics as they relate to Washington. As in, they cared that she was part of the “corrupt establishment.”

harry: In an October YouGov survey, 56 percent of voters said Clinton was “corrupt.” Only 47 percent said Trump was.

clare.malone: Do people see Trump as unethical but give him a pass because he’s a “big personality”?

micah: Maybe voters are less tolerant of “corruption” in the public sphere?

clare.malone: And yet they voted him into the highest public office.

micah: But maybe there’s a sense of “well, that’s how business is done” for the private sector. So Trump’s lapses are viewed in a more favorable light. In public service, there’s much less tolerance.

clare.malone: I’m just pointing out this fascinating tolerance people have for his ethics breaches. I mean, elder fraud was alleged in the Trump University thing — that’s generally a frowned-upon practice in the private sector. And yet …

harry: Many voters were really bothered by the Trump University issue. In September, Bloomberg found 46 percent of voters said they were bothered a lot by it. It just so happened that 57 percent were bothered a lot by Clinton’s handling of her private email. People seem to assume and tolerate a certain level of corruption in their public officials — see Albany, New York, for reference. But they don’t care that much if the corrupt official is also working for them. This is the Huey Long theory of governance, and it frequently holds up.

micah: OK, so let’s switch gears slightly … disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is on my office TV right now, and the Office of Congressional Ethics was set up in response to a series of Republican scandals in the mid-2000s, right? (Abramoff’s included.) So what lessons can we draw from what went down then? Someone give us a quick, top-level review of those scandals. Scandals are often used by good-government advocates to justify reforms, because those are the moments when opponents to reform are the most vulnerable. That was the basis for the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002 reining in soft campaign money, and Democrats used the Abramoff-DeLay lobbying scandals to justify the office. Abramoff ripping off Indian tribes and then showering gifts on Tom DeLay and other House officials was too much for many people to digest. DeLay was later convicted of conspiracy and money laundering in a Texas case, and once you are sentenced to prison, voters seem to get that you did something kind of wrong. (DeLay was later acquitted on appeal.)

harry: The 2006 midterm cycle also featured the Mark Foley scandal. Foley, a Republican representative from Florida, sent sexually explicit emails to former pages (teenage boys). And the big thing about Foley was that other members of Congress knew about it and swept it under the rug. There was also the Duke Cunningham scandal in that same Congress, in which Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham accepted bribes from defense contractors.

micah: So voters punished the GOP for these scandals in 2006 and 2008? Can we say that?

harry: There’s a ton of research to suggest that those members who were involved in scandals were punished. It could have cost the Republicans upwards of 10 to 15 seats in the House. It’s also the case that 53 percent of voters in the 2006 exit polls said that they didn’t approve of the way the GOP leadership handled the page scandal. Moreover, more voters rated “corruption and ethics” as important to their vote than any other issue.

micah: OK, so to wrap: Given how those George W. Bush-era scandals played out, how voters treated the various ethical questions surrounding Trump and Clinton and now the House GOP’s actions over the past day, give me your best answer to the question we started with: Do Americans care about ethics in politics?

clare.malone: Yes, I would argue that they care so much about it that they decided Washington needed a little housecleaning and they elected Donald Trump to do it. I don’t think it’s terribly high on the priority lists of most voters. If it’s a horrible pedophile or prison-sentencing thing, it can rise to the top level of consciousness. It can sometimes become a factor in close races. But a little money on the side, or favoritism, or double-dealing, is all too often tolerated.

harry: Yes, there have been numerous studies that have shown it does matter to how people vote. It may be partially responsible for the one arguably anti-incumbent congressional election — in which a bunch of sitting members from both parties lost — in modern history (1992). It is not the be all, end all, however. One scandal will not make or break a party. It needs to be an accumulation. I’ll retweet this chat when the Office of Congressional Ethics is eventually gutted.

micah: In other words: Stay tuned.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

David Firestone is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.