By Susan Crabtree - 09/09/09 10:05 AM EDT
The ethics spotlight on House Democrats is intensifying amid predictions from political analysts that Republicans will pick up many seats in next year’s midterm elections.
Few are going so far as to say that the GOP will win back the House, but ethics controversies are key to the rise of the minority party in the lower chamber. Republicans capitalized on Democratic ethics woes to win the House in 1994 and Democrats turned the tables on the GOP in 2006, catapulting Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Speaker.
Democrats didn’t need any more bad news during an unusually bruising healthcare debate during the August break, but House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) attracted more headlines when he failed to disclose at least $650,000 — and possibly millions of dollars — in assets on required congressional forms.
Newspapers across the country — including The Washington Post — have called on Rangel to give up his Ways and Means post while the ethics committee evaluates the many ethics allegations that have been detailed in various media accounts.
Some Democratic aides have tried to downplay Rangel’s problems, claiming that most voters are paying attention to healthcare reform and are unfamiliar with the controversy swirling around the House lawmaker.
However, there are signs that the Rangel controversies are extending well beyond the Washington Beltway. Late last week, Rangel ranked No. 10 in a list of popular Yahoo searches, after the U.S. Open, the swine flu vaccine, Vice President Joe Biden and movie director Guy Ritchie.
“Allowing this to linger without resolution for this long is not healthy or good for anyone,” said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for the government watchdog Common Cause. “It’s not good for Rangel, it’s not good for the public and it’s not good for Congress as an institution.”
To make matters worse for Democrats, two central players in a defense earmark prosecution are set to be sentenced this fall. That will likely prompt new waves of media attention to Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who requested the earmark at the heart of the case.
Pelosi has said she will take no action against Rangel or any other member unless the ethics committee recommends punishment or a prosecutor brings criminal charges.
As minority leader, Pelosi did not wait until formal charges were filed against then-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). But after an FBI investigation reportedly turned up $90,000 in Jefferson’s freezer and triggered concern from some House Democrats about the upcoming 2006 midterm elections, Pelosi removed Jefferson from the Ways and Means Committee. Jefferson was indicted on corruptions charges in 2007 and convicted this year.
Pelosi’s move to oust Jefferson from the powerful panel was criticized by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, but the decision proved to be politically shrewd.
With another midterm election approaching, Democrats’ angst with Rangel is expected to increase. Wanting to distance themselves from Rangel in 2008, a couple of
Democrats either returned political contributions he gave them or donated the money to charity.
“These data confirm anecdotal evidence, and our own view, that the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and congressional Democrats,” he wrote. “Today, The Cook Political Report’s congressional election model, based on individual races, is pointing toward a net Democratic loss of between six and 12 seats, but our sense, factoring in macro-political dynamics, is that this is far too low.”
Pelosi has said she wants the ethics committee to be allowed to handle both the Rangel investigation and another probe into the nexus between defense earmarks and campaign contributions.
The panel is under intense pressure, especially when it comes to the Rangel matter, to reach a conclusion in some part of the case as quickly as possible. The Rangel investigation began more than a year ago at Rangel’s urging.
Originally, Pelosi predicted it would wrap up by the end of 2008, but after new reports of additional ethics allegations surfaced, the panel was forced to expand the probe at least twice.
The panel could decide to expand the investigation yet again — and may be able to wrap up work by the end of the year after hiring five lawyers and one senior investigator at the end of July who worked long hours over the recess getting settled into their jobs.
In the last two weeks, with the additional revelations of Rangel’s tax and financial problems, watchdogs are growing restless and mulling the possibility of calling for a special counsel to step in and take over the ethics investigation. Even though some good-government groups worry that appointing an independent counsel could turn back the clock on the entire probe, their patience for a conclusion — even a partial one — is growing thin.
“Everyone is waiting with bated breath for [the ethics committee’s] decision and comments,” said Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate for U.S. PIRG. “If we don’t have it resolved in a couple of months, we’ll start calling for further action.”
The inaction is leaving an opening for Republicans. House Republican Conference Secretary John Carter (Texas) and other GOP members took to the House floor Tuesday night to demand House ethics action against Rangel. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week renewed his call for Rangel to give up his gavel.
With the new financial disclosure revelations and ethics investigative team finally in place, it would make sense for the committee to expand the investigation and give it more time to ensure that no stone is left unturned.
But if the final committee report analysis is perceived as weak, the panel will face new charges that it’s not living up to its claim of taking ethics matters more seriously than in previous Congresses, and Pelosi will face criticism from all sides that she failed to live up to her promise to “drain the swamp.”
“We’re all just waiting to see what the heck the ethics committee is going to do now that it’s reconstituted,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. “If there is some kind of indication that this has not been a serious investigation … if the report they issue is not very complete, all of us will be up in arms.”