Some question whether lawmaker trying Waters can be impartial

A jury of her peers will decide whether Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) violated House ethics rules, but some are questioning the ability of at least one of the members to remain impartial.

Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), who sits on the adjudicatory panel that will weigh the allegations against Waters late this month, won reelection by just 600 votes, according to The Associated Press. His opponent, Andy Barr, is refusing to concede and has asked for a recanvass.

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If Chandler wins, it would be by a razor-thin margin in an increasingly red district, and if he loses, watchdogs argue, he likely would be focused on looking for his next job, scenarios fraught with conflicts of interest and political implications.

After such a hard-fought election in a majority-Republican state, some Democrats privately worry that Chandler may want to prove that he is capable of taking a hard stance against a member of his own party and judge Waters more severely than he would in the middle of a term, when political influences are less powerful.

“I have several objections,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who served in the House and Senate general counsel’s office. “The very reason that the lame-duck was adopted in this institution is because members are relatively easily influenced during that time in ways that members during the two years before the election are not.”

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed in 1932, truncated the period after an election, before members were sworn in for a new legislative session. Early in the nation’s history, with transportation to and from the Capitol slow, long lame ducks were the norm. In fact, once the November election was established, it was more than a year before newly elected lawmakers met.

Tiefer also mentioned the outside chance of the House Administration Committee determining the results of Chandler’s election. Such a turn of events is rare. The last time it occurred was in Rep. Loretta Sanchez’s (D-Calif.) initial race for Congress against then-Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.). She won by 984 votes, but Dornan charged voter fraud and used the privileges afforded to former members to appear on the House floor to call for a special election. In February 1998, the House Administration Committee upheld Sanchez’s victory.

“The prospect of that might also influence his role in deliberations,” Tiefer said.

Craig Holman of Public Citizen, however, disagrees, arguing that the House ethics process is not akin to a legal proceeding in which attorneys for both sides can argue for and against jury members based on race, bias and other traits.

“He’s still a member of Congress until January and it’s his obligation to continue serving on this adjudicatory committee until he is no longer a member.

“This not a comparable situation,” Holman continued. “In a criminal jury situation you don’t have members presiding over themselves … this is not grounds for his recusal or disqualification.”

The stakes are high for Waters. Democrats are speculating that Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), the top Democrat on the powerful Financial Services Committee, could move over to the Department of Housing and Urban Development after losing his chairmanship or in a few years. Waters is next in line to take over the ranking spot, but any serious ethics punishment could prevent her from ascending. It would take just one Democrat on the adjudicatory panel to side with all four Republicans to move forward with a reprimand.

Other members of the adjudicatory committee handily won reelection. With the exception of Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus along with Waters, her Democratic allies are concerned that the other members of the panel will not be particularly favorable toward her.

The other members of the panel are: Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the ethics committee, as well as Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) ,who won her election with 59 percent of the vote and represents Tampa, which is known for its many retirees, and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), the sole House member of a state whose population is only 1 percent black, compared to the national average of nearly 13 percent.