Democrats Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters are fighting for their reputations and perhaps their political careers, trying to stave off investigations against them by the House Ethics Committee. Both seem to be daring House leaders to proceed with public trials, and so far Democratic leaders have been willing to take that dare, refusing to shortcircuit the ethics process.
Rangel and Waters are also prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus, leading some of their defenders to suggest that they are somehow victims of racism or a double standard. There is no evidence whatsoever to support that contention. To the contrary, the allegations against Rangel and Waters are serious and well-founded, and would require action regardless of the race or political party of the member involved. Rather than attack the Ethics Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus would be better off publicly committing to operate by the rules.
“The racism charge, though, was rejected by Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an ethics watchdog group, even as she acknowledged the current situation is bound to anger black lawmakers.
“There are ethics problems within the CBC,” she said. “They have to acknowledge that.”
Sloan noted that several white lawmakers, including Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), are currently under investigation by federal and congressional investigators. Ensign is being investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee and the Justice Department over the fallout from an extramarital affair he had with the wife of a top aide, while Visclosky and his former chief of staff are being probed over their ties to a now-defunct lobbying firm raided by the feds last year.
Two other white lawmakers, Reps. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) and Mark Souder (R-Ind.), resigned this year under ethical clouds. Massa left Congress after POLITICO reported he was under investigation by the ethics committee for sexually harassing male staffers, while Souder quickly departed after admitting a long-running extramarital affair with a part-time aide.”
You can add to that list former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who is now running for the GOP nomination for governor of Georgia. Deal resigned from Congress earlier this year in futile hope that by doing so he could block release of a highly critical ethics investigation.
House Democrats are clearly worried that the spectacle of two prominent members on public trial on ethics charges will hurt them in the fall elections; in fact, both Rangel and Waters are using that concern as leverage in demanding better treatment. Their willingness to threaten damage to their party caucus in order to save their own hides does not speak well for either of them.
However, the best way to gauge the current state of congressional ethics is not the behavior of individual members, but whether their colleagues are willing to tolerate that misbehavior. The Rangel and Waters cases offer evidence of a system that is working and of a House that is far more willing than in the past to police its own.
In fact, the open, aggressive process for handling House ethics investigations represents an important promise kept by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The tough rules now in place were adopted two years ago over strong protests by Minority Leader John Boehner and most of his fellow Republicans, and even many Democrats voted for the rules grudgingly, at Pelosi’s insistence.
Back in 2005, you may recall, House Speaker Denny Hastert took a very different course. Hoping to shut down investigations of Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others, Hastert fired the Republican chairman of the Ethics Committee and two of its more independent Republican members, replacing them with House Republicans who were much more willing follow orders and bury complaints. Top committee staff was also fired, and committee rules were changed to make it much more difficult to file ethics charges. (A refresher on how ethics complaints were handled in the DeLay/Hastert era is available here.)
After DeLay was indicted on campaign-finance charges in Texas, Republican caucus rules required that he step down from his leadership role. Instead of removing DeLay, House Republicans voted to remove the rule, a step they were forced to reverse only after a harsh public backlash. In that same time frame, Hastert sat for more than a year on information that Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, was hitting on underage House pages. The speaker did nothing to protect those pages from Foley’s advances until the scandal became public and he was finally forced to act.
We should at least acknowledge that the process that we’re seeing today represents a complete reversal of that earlier attitude. The rules are being enforced.