Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is drawing huge crowds to its latest movie rendition. Yet fans of the intriguing characters and scenarios Alice encounters in her adventures, need not fork over the cost of a movie ticket to witness the nonsense that is “Wonderland.” All they need do is watch the shenanigans now unfolding in the nation’s Capital.
Really – who needs the Mad Hatter when we have former New York Congressman Eric Massa proudly describing how he “gropes” male staffers, but only playfully during “tickling” sessions? And, why enter the fantasy world of Alice — where Humpty Dumpty explains that a word mean nothing more than whatever he chooses it to mean — when all you have to do is tune in and watch New York’s Charlie Rangel twist words to explain why his stepping down from his post as the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, should not be taken as an admission he’s done anything wrong?
Capitol Hill scandals are as old as, well, Capitol Hill; and the “modern era” has witnessed its fair share. Who can forget the spectacle of then-Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills (D-AR) chasing stripper Fanne Foxe into the Tidal Basin in 1974? Or witnessing former Colorado Senator Gary Hart’s presidential aspirations implode following publications of photos with girlfriend Donna Rice aboard the sailboat “Monkey Business” in 1987. More recently, the Washington Beltway scene was rocked in 2006 when e-mail messages between Republican Florida House member Mark Foley and a male page were made public. That scandal sank more than a single congressman; it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the Republican Party losing its majority for the first time in 12 years.
In each of these earlier – and other – congressional scandals, the leadership of each of our two major political parties attempted to spin the incident to its advantage and, of course, to the detriment of the other party. For example, in the Mark Foley case, the fact that the House GOP leadership was shown to have responded slowly and clumsily to the mounting evidence of the congressman’s transgressions, gave the Democrats a powerful weapon with which to hammer the Republicans in the off-year election. This year, the shoe is on the other foot.
Facing two major scandals in another seminal off-year election, the Democrats are trying desperately to paint themselves as the party that truly cares about ethics, and is in fact taking “swift and decisive” action to deal with evidence of corruption. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Jo-Ann Armao gushed that Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is a “hero” for his “deft” handling of the Eric Massa scandal. Such accolades may be a bit premature.
For one thing, as even novice Washington, DC observers know, in scandals such as these more details inevitably seep out over time; and we don’t yet know how much the Pelosi-Hoyer leadership team knew, or when they knew it about Massa’s grotesque behavior with male staffers.
More difficult for the Democrats, however, is the manner in which they have permitted the Rangel affair to fester. Allowing the long-time New York Democrat to hang on to the Ways and Means gavel for months after clear evidence of tax transgressions and other ethical shortcomings surfaced, dramatically reduces the credibility of the Democratic leadership to claim the mantel of “ethical leadership.” As noted by Ruth Marcus in the Wall Street Journal on March 3rd – the same day Rangel “temporarily” surrendered his chairmanship – the House ethics committee is often more an enabler of corruption than a prosecutor of it. And that’s a problem for both parties.