Lawmaker News

An Indelible Stain on the Floor

This week finds House Democrats struggling to address their earmark problem, that perennial stain on the floor they thought they could finally scrub clean after all these years. What they had scrubbed along the way was their original promise to expose every special spending item, and now Republicans have their backs against the wall. It practically makes losing on Iraq war votes seem fun.

But there are other messes, too. I learned from listening to Rep. Mark Kirk's (R-Ill.) radio address over the weekend that there is an additional ethics matter the new majority has backed away from, and it isn't pretty. 

The Tailor-Made Scandal

Sure, it was a stretch for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to say that time had run out on a critical debate over immigration reform because the U.S. Senate had to move on to the no-confidence vote on Alberto Gonzales. The attorney general certainly inspires confidence in no one, but any real attempt to impeach him or force his resignation would obviously begin in the Judiciary Committee, where ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) seems ready to help. Democrats held their vote, which failed like they knew it would, but they dragged vulnerable Republicans on the record, just like they wanted to.

Was it Reid's idea or that of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Oversight and Courts Subcommittee of Judiciary and of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee? The firing of U.S. attorneys from the Department of Justice has turned out to be just the sort of scandal the new majority needs to cement its fragile 51-49 majority in the next election, and not only is Schumer leading the investigation into the firings, he is leading the party's campaign. No matter how you shake it, as he hunts for facts he is hunting for dollars and votes.

Bye-bye, Dollar Bill

For Democratic Congressman William Jefferson (La.), the other shoe finally dropped. But the real question is: What took it so long?

It’s been almost two years since federal investigators found $90,000 hidden in the freezer of his Louisiana home. If you ask me, they should have put this guy away a long time ago.

But make no mistake about it. The case of William Jefferson is far different from the case of Tom DeLay. The former is an isolated case of one member of Congress using his office for personal gain — and getting caught.

DeLay, on the other hand, is but one link in a long chain of Republican congressmen, all tied to crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and all willing to trade legislative favors in return for campaign cash and other goodies. So far, only DeLay and Bob Ney have fallen — but others are bound to follow.

Down, Down, Down

According to the Washington Post, ratings for congressional Democrats are going down, down, down. Apparently, their base is unhappy with them because they haven’t done what they said they would do on Iraq: End the war.

But the poll numbers also show that less than 20 percent of the American people think we should pull out right now. So the Democrats lose either way. If they pass legislation to pull out now, they risk losing the people. And when they don’t, they lose their base. Not a good position to be in.

Democrats have a host of other problems. The indictment of Bill Jefferson and the new majority’s inability to make real progress on ethics reform (this is hardly the most ethical Congress in history, as promised by Speaker Pelosi) means they are beginning to lose the independents.  

The Jefferson Double Standard

Representative William Jefferson has allegedly been accused of 11 bribery and fraud schemes involving his business interests in at least seven West African countries, including telecommunications deals in Nigeria and Ghana, oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea, waste-recycling systems in Nigeria and the Nigerian sugar plant for which he sought Export-Import Bank financing. He made corrupt trades in his congressional office where he served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, to enrich himself and his family.

When Tom DeLay’s ethics were in question the Democrats triggered a round of attacks. However, whatever DeLay was guilty of, he bowed out gracefully. Jefferson, by contrast, is maintaining his innocence and has no intention of stepping down. As this federal indictment is the first in which a U.S. official is charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars bribery of foreign officials, Jefferson should take responsibility for these outrageous criminal behaviors. This not a party issue. Wrong is wrong and right is right no matter the party affiliation. However, I am a bit curious as to where the watchdog groups are in this matter.

Resign immediately, Congressman Jefferson, and stop this wasteful, selfish and continued abuse of taxpayers’ dollars.

Thundering Horsemen Close in on GOP

David Hill, director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988, has a column posted on The Hill entitled "Overblown GOP apocalypse" in which he asserts the GOP isn't so bad off as the conservative bloggers and pundits would have you believe. Cases in point, he writes, are Florida and California.

"Consider Florida, where the newly elected Republican governor is already so popular that Floridians may forget about Jeb Bush. And the state legislature is dominated by the GOP. ... At the other end of the country, in California, you see a Republican Party that's bouncing back under the leadership of a suddenly stronger and more popular governor."

I've lived and worked in California (formerly as the communications director for the California Republican Party), and I can tell you things in the Golden State aren't all that rosy for the GOP. Consider that they lost Richard Pombo's congressional seat in a district where Republicans hold a registration advantage of 43%-37%. (In every other district, both congressional and legislative, in the state where Republicans hold at least 40% registration, they control the seat.) 

The Swamp is Clogged

Has Jack been taken to Nancy's woodshed yet? Have they had the talk about how many more times she can stand to see images from that ABSCAM video the National Republican Congressional Committee is now so fond of?

The new majority, the one that promised to "drain the swamp" and be the most ethical in history, voted yesterday to protect both one of its own and the earmark system politicians depend on but have to pretend to hate. Democrats voted en masse (although ethics committee members voted present) to stop the GOP from censuring Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) for his threat to block the appropriations of a member who had tried to eliminate one of his earmarks, a violation of ethics rules.

There is, of course, a long tradition of lawmakers yelling at and threatening each other on the House floor. But two things are notable here: 1) Murtha is a very close friend of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the one she unsuccessfully stuck her neck out for in an attempt to topple the majority leader last November and 2) Democrats are trying to become the party of ethics reform, something easier promised than delivered, as Pelosi is quickly learning.


My former boss, Rep. Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), is a wise man and a good political leader. One of his sayings he had when he was House Speaker was “Don’t set up too many mousetraps around the house.” After all, if you aren’t careful, you might trap yourself.

That is exactly what the new Democratic majority did this week. It caught one of its own, Rep. John Murtha (Pa.), in a clear violation of one its own rules that it trumpeted so loudly at the beginning of the year. The earmark rule might be stupid, as Murtha and his colleagues clearly think. The Democratic ethics reform package might be complete “crap,” as Murtha put it last year.

But the Democrats can’t call themselves the most ethical majority in history, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) likes to put it, and then create rules only to ignore them with reckless abandon. It’s kind of like passing a seatbelt law and then refusing to wear the seatbelt.

Trouble in Democratic Paradise

So now that the House Democrats have had about six months to figure out how to be in the majority, what do they do? Change the rules.

The test for germaneness has stood in the House for 185 years. But because the new majority has lost vote after vote (11 in all) on motions to recommit, they are seeking to change the test to make it harder for the minority to win.

This may seem like procedural mumbo-jumbo. But the rules of the House not only dictate how the laws of the land are made, they also indicate how secure the House majority is.

A majority leadership’s approach to the rules of the House quite often shows how well it is doing, how in touch it is with the people, how cohesive it is as a team, etc.

Great Theater, But Little Progress

The new congressional majority is making great headlines beating up members of the executive branch, but making little progress on important priorities of the nation.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has subpoenaed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rise over nuclear yellow cake, sparking a possible executive branch-legislative branch showdown. This fight will dominate the headlines. But what new ground will this hearing break? After all, Rice already testified on this issue in her confirmation for the post she currently occupies.

Following the grilling of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last week over the firing of U.S. attorneys who everyone agrees the president has the right to fire, you can see a trend here.