Campaigning House Dems may have to confront ethics scandals

House Democrats will likely have to confront a pair of ethics scandals before Election Day, despite early hopes that problems involving former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) could be dispensed with well before the November midterms.

Experts say the House ethics committee is likely to issue a report within a few months as to  whether Democratic leadership offices properly handled complaints that Massa was sexually harassing members of his staff.

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Massa’s resignation last month closed the book on an initial investigation focused on the complaints themselves. But in response to new information that at least two Democratic leadership offices knew of such complaints weeks before they became public, the ethics panel last week announced that it was re-opening and expanding the probe to include a look at how those — and potentially other — offices handled them.

Robert L. Walker, a former chief counsel and staff director of both the Senate and House ethics committees, said the Massa investigation would probably end with a report being issued by the end of July at the latest.

A report released in that timeframe, regardless of its content, would revive the issue just as Democrats are heading into the August work period — a critical month in an election cycle the party acknowledges will be difficult at best.

“I would bet that it is the intention of the investigative subcommittee and the full committee to have this completed within the next few months,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s two to three months.”

Walker said he would “not be surprised” if, based on admissions from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) that their offices were made aware of harassment complaints, additional House leaders were called to provide testimony.

“My view is that even though the committee would be looking to investigate this on the fast track, they will follow the evidence wherever it leads,” he said.

Ethics controversies involving majority-party members have historically contributed to big electoral gains for the minority. Republicans capitalized on Democratic ethics woes, including the House banking scandal, to win that chamber in 1994, and Democrats declared a culture of corruption under Republican control, helping catapult Pelosi to Speaker in 2006.

In the lead-up to the 2006 elections, Pelosi used privileged resolutions to highlight then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) aggressive use of power, and the Republicans are now following that playbook.

In the last two years, Republicans have used the parliamentary maneuver to pound home the ethics message on everything from Rangel giving up his Ways and Means gavel to the need for ethics-panel investigations into earmarks and their relationship to campaign contributions. Now Republicans are questioning whether the Democratic leadership moved quickly enough to address the complaints against Massa.

After being told by his staff about the allegations, Hoyer informed his staff that if the matter wasn't referred by Massa or someone in his office to the ethics committee within 48 hours, Hoyer would do so himself. The Post has reported that Pelosi's office knew of concerns about Massa as far back as October 2009, but she has acknowledged that her staff did not personally inform her.

There is still disagreement about whether the charges against him or Rangel will stick.

“The majority party’s ethical problems have always been an issue in elections where control of Congress shifted to the other party,” said one GOP campaign strategist. “For the last four years Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats have flooded the swamp with ethical transgressions rather than drain the swamp as they promised. Republicans are going to make Democrats own the ethical failings of Nancy Pelosi’s majority.”

At the same time, David Wasserman, the House editor of The Cook Political Report, predicted that the ethics problems of one or even two of its members will have little to no impact on overall voter attitudes toward the majority.

“Are Massa and Rangel going to be major forces in this election? No,” he said. “This election will come down to the economy.”

Wasserman added that, even if its findings were explosive, a July or even August report about Massa or Rangel would hit too early for Republicans to capitalize on.

“It’s highly unlikely that reports coming out that far out from Election Day will have an impact beyond what has already been felt,” he said.

Watchdogs have given Pelosi credit for trying to raise ethical standards in the House. Establishing the Office of Congressional Ethics, a board made up mainly of former members of Congress that makes recommendations for further investigation to the full ethics committee, was a step in the right direction, they say.

But the same watchdogs contend that Pelosi and House Democratic leaders have failed in other ways to take proactive action in difficult internal matters.

During an unusually bruising healthcare debate during the fall and winter, Democratic leaders were forced to deal with a series of news stories concerning Rangel’s failure to pay taxes on some $70,000 worth of rental income on a Dominican Republic villa, his alleged abuse of New York City rent subsidy laws and his failure to disclose at least $650,000 in assets on his required congressional forms, among other things.

Democratic leaders didn’t take action and force Rangel to give up his Ways and Means Committee chairmanship until the ethics committee publicly admonished him for taking an illegal corporate-sponsored trip to the Caribbean — and even then did so only under intense pressure. The ethics committee has yet to issue its findings on the more serious matters, including his failure to pay taxes. When the panel finally does so, most likely in the late spring or summer, it will only serve to remind voters about Rangel’s alleged ethical misdeeds.

Public Citizen’s Craig Holman gives Democrats credit for trying to raise the ethics bar, but said they bungled the Rangel and Massa matters.

“Had they dealt with the Rangel issue forthrightly, it would already be over, a thing of the past,” Holman said. “But they dragged their feet, and now the Democrats are going to have to carry this one into the campaign.”

This story was updated at 12:08 p.m.

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