Speaker John Boehner seems intent on avoiding a repeat of history when it comes House Republicans and ethics.
Only a couple of hours had passed Wednesday after the website Gawker posted a story about married Rep. Chris Lee soliciting a date on Craigslist when the New York Republican abruptly announced his resignation. Lee, a two-term Member, had posted a revealing picture of himself on Craigslist and, according to Gawker, sent a series of e-mails to the woman.
“I believe that Members should be held to the highest ethical standard,” Boehner said at a press conference Thursday. “Congressman Lee made his own decision that he felt was in his best interest and in the interest of his family.”
The Ohio Republican didn’t admit to having a hand in Lee’s departure, but GOP sources say the new Speaker has shown little patience for ethical lapses and scandals. In an incident last May, Boehner wasted no time dealing with then-Rep. Mark Souder after he learned of the Indiana Republican’s affair with a part-time aide. Boehner spoke on the phone with Souder. A day after Boehner, then the Minority Leader, reported his conversation with the House Ethics Committee, Souder resigned.
At a closed-door Conference meeting the day Souder announced his resignation, Boehner reportedly told Members: “If you put your own interests above those of your constituents, you’re hurting them, and you’re hurting the team. And it won’t be tolerated.”
“It’s been pretty clear Republicans have a zero-tolerance policy” for ethical wrongdoing, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said, adding that Lee’s resignation was a “pretty dramatic example” of that.
“I think it’s important to move forward, otherwise things hang out there,” the Florida Republican said.
Republicans understand the stakes of failing to address ethical issues. Weeks before the 2006 elections, House Republicans came under a firestorm after it was revealed that then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was having inappropriate electronic chats with House pages; many felt the scandal sealed the GOP’s electoral fate that November.
After Republicans lost the majority, Boehner worked behind the scenes to tamp down inappropriate behavior. Boehner’s cleanup campaign began in earnest in April 2007, when he asked GOP Reps. John Doolittle (Calif.) and Rick Renzi (Ariz.) to relinquish their committee spots after unrelated FBI raids on their homes.
Democrats had promised during the 2006 campaign that if elected they would bring a new era of ethics to the House, promising to “drain the swamp” by passing sweeping new ethics rules. But as it turned out, Democrats were not immune from ethics problems of their own, as Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and former Reps. William Jefferson (La.) and Eric Massa (N.Y.) proved. Rangel refused to resign his seat but was censured by the House in 2010; Jefferson, who lost his seat in 2008, has since been convicted on a series of corruption charges; Massa resigned from Congress last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct.