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.
Democrats have made it a practice to strip committee assignments from Members under federal investigation, but then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to struggle to force lawmakers to resign their seats.
Republicans said Lee’s speedy resignation this week was in the best interest of the Conference because had he stuck around it would have distracted from the agenda and sent a signal that improper behavior is tolerated.
“By making a high-profile example of him, it sends a message to the whole Conference,” said Stuart Roy, a former GOP leadership aide and partner at Prism Public Affairs.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said Lee’s decision to step down was the right one: “I think he handled it appropriately.”
Freshman Rep. David Schweikert said Lee “gets some credit for understanding he had to go away.”
“If he was encouraged to resign right away, they did the right thing,” the Arizona Republican said of leadership.
Schweikert acknowledged that previous ethical scandals — including that of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was affiliated with several prominent Republican Members — had left the GOP skittish.
“I think that’s why everyone is so sensitive that this is unacceptable,” he said.
But Schweikert said Republicans had learned lessons from the Abramoff era.
“There was no lingering. There was no debating and arguing. Gone in a day is not too bad,” he said.
Likewise, Rep. Allen West said he was happy that Lee’s indiscretions were not left to fester.
“We have a lot of ethical issues with the Democrats, and at least we kind of take care of our own,” the Florida Republican said.
Boehner has shown he isn’t afraid to confront his Members. Last summer, he was quick to individually address some of his colleagues after an embarrassing interaction involving Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) and a woman at the Capitol Hill Club became public. Boehner, according to sources familiar with the talks, spoke separately to Members with whom he had concerns to tell them that their behavior was a “distraction” from the party’s goal of taking back the House.
Several Republican strategists, however, noted that it’s not always an easy call when it comes to handling the ethics of Members.
Boehner has already given some leeway to embattled freshman Rep. David Rivera.
The Florida Republican is under investigation by local law enforcement for allegations that he failed to report $130,000 in loans from a company owned by his mother. Rivera has said that he has since repaid the loans.
Boehner said at a press conference in late January that the allegations against Rivera did not involve his Congressional service and that “we need to see how this plays out.”
Republican aides and lobbyists said Boehner has been smart to say that he would deal with ethics issues on a case-by-case basis.
“There has to be some understanding that things are not always as simple as black and white,” said John Feehery, a former GOP leadership aide and president of Quinn Gillespie Communications. “A lot of other Members get unfairly accused; there’s angry ex-wives, ex-employees.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.