Democrats Split Over Attacking GOP on Ethics

Posted September 8, 2005 at 2:37pm

Out of the range of Democratic reactions to the Republican victory on CAFTA, that of Rep. Robert Brady (Pa.) might be the most unusual.

“I respect the discipline,” Brady said of the Republican arm-twisting that eeked out a two-vote victory on the Central American trade pact. “Unless and until we get that type of discipline, I don’t know how we can win back the House.”

That sentiment may not be popular in the Caucus, but it highlights a hurdle facing Democrats as they try to regain seats in the midterm elections: To topple Majority LeaderTom DeLay (R-Texas) and the conservatives who rose to power with him, they will need to adopt the hard-charging tactics the GOP used to sweep them from power more than a decade ago.

Already, Democrats see encouraging parallels to the summer of 1993, when Republicans were busy plotting their electoral tidal wave. Now, as then, public confidence in Congress is bottoming out; a cloud of ethics charges hangs over the chamber and the minority party has presented united opposition to significant pieces of the majority’s agenda.

But now, as then, the minority is divided over how to plot its course. In 1994, despite an abundance of examples feeding the public perception that Congress had gotten too cozy with special interests, GOP leaders urged caution. They worried that playing up ethics charges facing Democrats would damage the institution, and that a non-inconsequential number of Republicans were caught up in the Bank scandal.

It took a relative backbencher, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), to lead an insurgency of young conservatives who made reform a centerpiece of the party’s message.

This time around, with Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democrats say they have in the ranks of their leadership a young bulldog on ethics to lead the charge.

“The brunt of the message is holding these Members accountable — not in every case specifically on ethics, but for not working on behalf of their districts,” said DCCC spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg. “So many of these Republican Members have made their priority falling in line behind Republican leadership, doing whatever Tom DeLay told them to do, or what their business lobbyist friends told them to do.”

Based on the ethics problems dogging some Democrats, an ethics-based attack would amount to “throwing stones in glass houses,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“When you have Democratic Members of Congress whose homes are raided by the FBI, that doesn’t look good,” said Forti, referring to the recent raid on the home of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). “I don’t know how [Democrats] are going to be able to argue with a straight face Republicans are the bad guys when that’s going on.” Democrats note that federal investigators also raided Rep. Duke Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) home recently.

In 1994, though, the threat of collateral damage to fellow Republicans facing ethics problems did not stop Gingrich from putting reform front and center. Indeed, Gingrich and some close friends were implicated in the House Bank scandal.

In an apparent mirror of the split facing Republicans, Democrats this year have been slow to rally behind reform measures.

Three bills introduced by Democrats this spring to overhaul lobbying regulations have attracted exclusively Democratic support, but some prominent signatures remain absent, including those of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

Some Democrats not yet on board have said they have stayed away due to substantive concerns with the bill, rather than any broader consideration of strategy. But several sources close to House Democrats said a significant number of moderates believe the party should keep its focus on issues closer to home for voters, such as the Iraq war and soaring gas prices.

“You have a whole group of Members who want to make more out of policy issues,” said one source with ties to the Democratic leadership. “They think there’s plenty to criticize the Republicans on, starting with Social Security and health care costs.”

However, the two approaches may not conflict, the source added. “The question is: Which voice becomes louder?”

Lending volume to the calls for reform will be an array of left-leaning interest groups that have proliferated in the past decade.

“Public-interest groups are seizing the opportunity created by the House lobbying scandal to help people see that we don’t have to tolerate a corrupt Congress,” said Mike Casey, director of Campaign for a Cleaner Congress. “The lobbyists don’t have to run everything, and their influence can be sharply reduced. It’s just a matter of anger, will and opportunity.”

Casey and a host of like-minded groups are dedicated to either pushing their prescriptions for reform or highlighting the need for it by targeting Members they think have sold out.

Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal organization, has focused most of its fire on Republicans, running ads in the districts of Reps. DeLay, Jim McCrery (La.), Cunningham and Bob Ney (Ohio). But it also has shown a willingness to take on Democrats, recently accusing Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.) of taking campaign contributions from Wal-Mart and then voting against a measure that would have closed a child-labor loophole for the retailer.

CAF Deputy Director Ellen Miller said her group doesn’t “do politics.” And while she added CAF will not be active in specific races in 2006, she called this “the most corrupt Congress I have ever seen.”

“The Republican class of 1994 came to Washington to clean it up but stayed to corrupt it, or be corrupted,” she said.

Democrats hoping to stage their own version of the 1994 sweep should look at parallels to a more recent election, NRCC’s Forti said.

In 1998, Republicans hoped to capitalize on sixth-year restlessness about Bill Clinton’s presidency and his personal missteps by making the election a referendum on his performance.

“Our message bombed,” Forti said. “And everyone in the world knew what Bill Clinton did in the Oval Office. That showed it’s very difficult to nationalize House races, and that people knew their Congressman — and their Congressman was not Bill Clinton.”