How to Fight the Forthcoming Ethics Scandals? Make a Phone Call.

How to Fight the Forthcoming Ethics Scandals? Make a Phone Call.
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First in a series, Annals of Resistance

Ethical questions are bound to loom over the forthcoming Trump administration. Indeed, ethical violations---questions of right and wrong---will likely be a theme.

With a cabinet full of extremely wealthy people whose confirmation hearings are going forward without the traditional ethics reviews completed; with Trump’s global business empire going undivested and his taxes going undisclosed, at his insistence, thus exposing him to all sorts of future ethical liability; and with Trump constantly misrepresenting the truth, misrepresentations that news organizations like The New York Times now simply call “lies,” we are heading into murky waters.

Which makes saying goodbye to the Obama administration---which was, ethically speaking, remarkably clean---all the harder.

But we are here and must deal with reality: How can the conscientious public fight back against the forthcoming ethical scandals?

By making a phone call. More to the point, lots of phone calls over the coming four years.

In happy fact, an ethical victory has already been scored---the Congressional Ethics Office was saved from gutting---and the method of rescue was none other than the phone call, an overwhelming barrage of them from conscientious citizens. This victory risks being forgotten in the non-stop media circus that is Donald J. Trump.

In a benighted move by House Republicans to gut the independent watchdog Office of Congressional Ethics as their very first act in the new session, public outrage was so massive and blistering when this news broke that the phone lines on Capitol Hill lit up, forcing a GOP rethink and a complete reversal.

How massive and blistering was the barrage? As Rep. Walter B. Jones, Republican from North Carolina, “surprised” at the number of calls to both his district and Washington offices, put it: “People are just sick and tired. People are just losing confidence in the lack of ethics and honesty in Washington.”

Clearly, the public has a keener bead on Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington than Congressional Republicans, who had to be reminded. It is universally understood that this particular swamp is an ethical one, rife with ethical violations, thus to drain it requires, well, ethics---the stringent application of stringent ethics. A full-strength Congressional Ethics Office is crucial to that task (official website here).

Trump himself weighed in on the attempted gutting of this ethics watchdog---after the public made known its outrage---with a tweet: “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”

Note, please, that Trump does not object to gutting the ethics watchdog, “unfair as it may be,” but only to the timing of the gutting. Also, some news organizations wrongly credited the ethically-challenged Trump with championing the rescue of the Congressional watchdog (here and here). Here Trump was no actor, certainly no ethical actor, but a reactor---to outrage already registered by the public (also here).

Score one for the public, the Conscientious Public.

And stand by to make more calls: While the Office of Congressional Ethics has been saved, the House GOP nevertheless changed a rule allowing members to claim sole control of their records, notably expenditures, even if the OCE wants to investigate---which semi-guts the OCE again. This ethical fakery begs to be called out, so: Call it out. That which was saved once by the phone can be saved again by a redial.

Of the various means of communicating with leaders in Washington---including the phone call, the letter, the email, messages posted on Facebook and Twitter---the phone call is particularly powerful. As Times columnist David Leonhardt explains:

“Congressional staff members privately admit that they ignore many of the emails and letters they get. They also admit that phone calls are different. They have to answer them. Other people in the office hear the phone ringing and see their colleagues on the line. Phone calls are a tangible sign of public opinion, which is why they have been effective before.”

This still may seem small-bore to some, like bringing a knife to a gunfight, or worse, a tin can like kids used to use for backyard communication before the digital revolution. But, again, recall the showdown already won by the public over the Congressional Ethics Office. The phone call, especially if mounted in organized fashion, registers.

For your convenience, then, here are key phone numbers in Washington. To find your members of Congress, here are directories for the Senate and the House. Make frequent use of these directories over the next four years.

For now, about Trump nominees’ Senate confirmation hearings going forward without a full ethics review (at Democrats’ insistence, the hearings process has been slowed): Check the schedule (here), find out which Senate committee conducts which hearing (Senate committees here), and call the member Senators (here) to insist on a full ethics review for each nominee. Conducting these reviews is the Office of Government Ethics. Decrying the incoming administration for “sheer recklessness” in trying the ram the confirmations through without ethical review, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos describes such review “a controlled explosion” that can protect against a problem appointee. “Will Americans swamp the switchboards again to demand better? Republicans are betting that the answer is no.” Prove them wrong.

Finally, with the ethically-challenged Donald Trump taking power January 20, here’s the phone number of the White House switchboard: 202-456-1414. Put that number on speed-dial.

Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”

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