Focus and discipline, not partisan excess

Too many big things on agenda to allow power-play distractions to break out.

CALL THIS ONE, “The power of the tweet.”

President-elect Donald Trump has taken House Republicans to the woodshed by tweeting these simple words: “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!”

And with that House Republicans, who already had ignored Speaker Paul Ryan’s protests, surrendered to Trump.

FOR THOSE WHO may not have been following this inauspicious beginning to Republican rule in Washington, here’s what happened. Even before the official swearing-in ceremonies House Republicans secretly voted to eviscerate the independent congressional ethics office. The office was established in 2008 after Congress was embarrassed in a series of scandals that resulted in three members going to jail.

No prior notice was given that a change was under consideration. There was no public debate. Despite House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy opposing the change, their aides said, rebellious members of the caucus stampeded over them and pushed it through.

In its place would be a new “Office of Congressional Complaint Review” that would answer directly to the partisan politicians it’s supposed to investigate. To move forward with a probe into any complaint the new office would have to get permission.

WHAT WOULD BE NEXT? Proposals to change voting rules for citizens or measures to prop up partisan gerrymandering? We’ve seen years of that in Wisconsin and it shouldn’t be repeated in Washington.

So we side with Trump and Ryan. Republicans have bigger things to do. The party’s members in Congress need to be better than this — partisan hack distractions with no intent other than to consolidate power and cover their backsides. It’s way too reminiscent of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s single-mindedness in attacking any and every potential speed bump to their exercise of raw power.

That kind of action smacks of an obsession with domineering authority, rigging the rules to stifle future challenges — in this case, even when it comes to unethical behavior. This wrongheaded notion should never be raised again.

SPEAKER RYAN HAS been known for years as the Republicans’ idea man. He has a bold agenda that deserves to be heard on its merits, without the distractions posed by unseemly partisan political manipulations.

Ryan has been a leading proponent of repealing and replacing Obamacare. As of this moment, no one knows what replacement means. It’s a political land mine the speaker, as his party’s point man, will have to maneuver with great care.

Likewise, Ryan has called for deep tax reform. Lord knows it’s needed. The federal tax code is a labyrinth of such murky nature even accountants often are dumbfounded. It has been an instrument for social engineering by government, and for politicians to reward friends, punish enemies and pick winners and losers. A simplified tax system that provides certainty, encourages growth, assures everyone pays a fair share and closes special-interest loopholes will not be easy to achieve, but it may be the most important initiative of all.

RIVALING THE TAX CODE in significance is finally taking a clear-eyed look at entitlement programs that are bankrupting the nation. That will be complicated by President-elect Trump’s campaign statements saying while other GOP presidential candidates would cut things like Social Security and Medicare, he would not.

The reality is, though, such programs are on a collision course with economic reckoning. It’s not a difficult concept to understand — too many people will be collecting while too few people will be paying in. The situation can be managed, but a no-changes mindset is a recipe for disaster. The status quo is failing.

There are various options and strategies for bringing fiscal stability to the nation’s entitlement programs, but it will be a political challenge that only can be maneuvered with a steady hand.

It’s not an exaggeration to say Republicans could win big by carefully restoring financial health to a threatened system upon which so many people depend — or Republicans could do enormous damage to their brand by over-playing a partisan hand and scaring the bejesus out of millions of Americans.

FOR THE PARTY FAITHFUL, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Divided government has been the norm — thus was born the term gridlock in Washington signifying that nothing gets done except the insufferable partisan bickering between Republicans and Democrats. Now, with control of Congress and the White House, Republicans have a rare chance to convert words into actions.

The ethics fiasco has been a very bad start, even if Trump did manage to short-circuit it. The wrong message was sent, suggesting majority members also have a long and manipulative political agenda they’re eager to pursue.

It will be up to Ryan and the leadership to rein in the most hyper-partisan of the rebellious ideologues, to keep the majority focused and disciplined on the important work at hand. That won’t be easy, but it’s how this Congress could forge success.

If Ryan can keep political overreach at bay and actually solve some long-festering problems, he burnishes his statesman credentials and positions the party for a long run. If the firebrands get the best of him, this will become an opportunity blown.

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