Why the gutting of the Office on Congressional Ethics didn’t happen

Americans did something awesome.

As you might be aware, on Monday, January 2, the House Republicans passed their rules package in committee. This is an event that happens at the beginning of the new Congress usually without much fanfare. The rules are about amendments, debate, and procedure in voting for the upcoming congressional session. The majority party creates these rules and votes on them as a party in a closed-door session before the beginning of the new Congress.

There was some drama this time.

Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) introduced an amendment that would change the way the Office of Congressional Ethics worked.

By evening, news outlets were reporting about the amendment and its passage despite opposition from leadership. And social media responded.

The next morning, people started calling. Within hours, the House Republicans called an emergency meeting and withdrew the Goodlatte Amendment.

I want to talk a little about how this happened and why this happened.

I’m going to use a quick story and a sports analogy (I know) to explain my next point.

Once I was in a meeting with a one of my bosses and another staffer for an elected official where we were having a conversation about a legislator. He related the following personal experience (I’m paraphrasing from memory).

He said his kids played Madden Football and his youngest son almost always lost to his older son.

Why?

Every play his youngest son did was a Hail Mary pass.

So, sometimes his youngest son would complete the Hail Mary pass and get the touchdown, but, more often, his older son would complete thoughtful plays and win the game.

How often do we throw a Hail Mary pass and hope for the best? How can we identify the political moves that fall into the “small but strategic” category?

Let’s look deeper into the failure of the Goodlatte Amendment.

I believe this amendment failed for a few reasons:

  1. The House leadership opposed it. Both Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy warned against the amendment. That meant there wasn’t strong support among members. It also meant there wasn’t a good opposition strategy in place.
  2. The optics were really bad. They were voting to seriously restructure an independent ethics panel. That doesn’t look good. Enough said.
  3. Several media outlets reported on the amendment and it spread. Word went around quickly on social media and people were ready.
  4. Constituents called in about a targeted issue. This one was easy to write a script for and it made staffers and representatives think quickly about how to respond.

This was a small victory, sure, but it was an important one. Unlike the electoral college vote or impeachment, this isn’t a Hail Mary.

The long-shot legislation or political moves won’t be everyday occurrences. And they shouldn’t be. Look for more moments like this one to seize on a winnable goal and constantly think bigger.

But, everyone who called should stop and take a moment to be proud of the work they accomplished yesterday. It means something.