Ethics vs. Partisanship

Ethics and partisanship are concepts that usually mix about as well as fire and gasoline, but this time appears to be different. The long-term result is the strengthening of democracy, for democracy can only work when principles take precedence over partisanship.

Ethics and “GOP” have not, over the last generation, been terms one would automatically associate, so it is truly refreshing to see a senior GOP Congressman condemning GOP White House officials for using their official positions to promote their private businesses. Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, had already set the stage by denouncing Trump’s criticism of a department store as “inappropriate,” and now Jason Chaffetz has joined his Democratic counterpart Cummings in submitting a letter to the Office of Government Ethics noting “an inherent conflict of interest” in Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of Trump family’s private business.

Whether or not it results in any real action, this letter by the ranking member and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asking the Office of Government Ethics to recommend disciplinary action represents a stunning official “red line” in the path of an Administration only three weeks old that will surely find its place in U.S. legal history and be used in the future as a precedent to justify the disciplining of wayward officials. A bureaucrat thus charged would be in serious jeopardy of being fired if not imprisoned; we shall see what standards apply to White House officials.

At this point, the question of whether or not Chaffetz took appropriate initiative or just grudgingly came to the conclusion that White House behavior had simply become too blatant to ignore is a relatively minor issue. The mere fact of Chaffetz taking a stand on a serious question of White House ethics demonstrates that GOP Congressmen can be enticed to put principle before party and that, on specific issues of profound concern to American society—such as having ethical behavior by its elected representatives, it may be possible for Democrats and Republicans to focus on substantive issues, leaving partisanship to the side. Are we moving toward a less partisan and more flexible, issue-based approach to governance where a goal of accomplishing something might take precedence over scoring points?

This in no way should be read as implying that Chaffetz is remotely liberal in the sense of being “Madisonian” in his view of democracy or at all interested in broad cooperation with the Democrats. Rather, it seems to show that it is simply possible in the real world to find an occasional GOP Member of Congress willing to seek common ground with the other side of the isle on an issue-by-issue basis. No one is expecting such cooperation suddenly to become common, but given the razor-thin edge in the Senate, and the debilitating nature of the current hostility between the two parties, Chaffetz’ signature on that letter constitutes a welcome step toward the strengthening of our battered democracy.

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