GOP Learns Lesson on Ethics
Burned by a series of scandals in the 109th Congress that played a deciding role in costing House Republicans the majority, GOP leaders and the rank and file are taking a tougher stance toward colleagues with alleged legal woes this time around.
“I think [Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio)] early on decided that he would have zero tolerance for corruption or the perception of corruption,” Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said Friday. “If we are going to earn our way back to the majority we simply cannot countenance these things.”
On April 13, the FBI raided the Virginia home of Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), and last week the bureau searched an Arizona family business tied to Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) in separate ongoing investigations by the Justice Department.
Both lawmakers have denied any wrongdoing, and neither has been indicted on criminal charges, but as a result Doolittle lost his seat on the Appropriations Committee and Renzi relinquished his Intelligence Committee seat until the matters are resolved.
Both Doolittle and Renzi informed Boehner that they would step down from their assignments, but multiple Members and aides close to leadership said that if they had refused to step down they would have been removed by the Republican Steering Committee and ultimately the full House Republican Conference.
Appropriations is an “exclusive” committee, so Doolittle currently has no committee assignments. Renzi still sits on the Financial Services and Natural Resources panels.
The swift action to bump the lawmakers from their main panel assignments is notable when compared to the 109th Congress, when Republicans most often decried allegations against their own as partisan attacks, circled the wagons around the Members in question and kept them in place on their committees.
Then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) held on to his gavel at House Administration for more than two months after he was subpoenaed by the Justice Department in early November 2005 as part of the ongoing investigation into now-incarcerated lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Ney, a once-popular lawmaker, had strong support from his colleagues and leadership. Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) memorably led a standing ovation for the Ohio Republican when he gave an impassioned speech to the Conference pleading his innocence.
Then-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) — who, like Ney, is now in prison — never stepped down from his seat on Appropriations before he announced his resignation in November 2005, and then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) stayed in the House for months after he was indicted by a Texas grand jury, even reclaiming a seat on the Appropriations panel when Conference rules forced him to step down from the Majority Leader post.
That tolerance has now evaporated, and leaders have made a concerted effort to let it be known.
“Our whole Conference is trying to demonstrate we’re taking these things seriously,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) said Friday. “The actions speak for themselves.”
Boehner told reporters that his discussions with Members were “to keep them on the straight and narrow path” and said it was more than just a leadership prerogative. “We have a job to do, not just us but the Members,” he said.
While not all Members under investigation have stepped aside, they are facing greater scrutiny. A senior Republican, who asked not to be identified because Steering Committee discussions are private, said Boehner had reassured the panel earlier this year that Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) should get the ranking member slot on Appropriations despite also being under investigation by the Justice Department.
Boehner said he met privately with Lewis for three hours to have the 15-term lawmaker assure him that there would be no problems. He got the post, but outside ethics advocacy groups have decried the decision.
The liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reiterated that call last week. “Raids of a member’s home or business cannot be the new standard for what compels a member to step down from a committee post,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in statement. “Rep. Lewis, as the top Republican appropriator, is responsible for funding all federal agencies, including the Justice Department. … It is well past time for Rep. Lewis [to] relinquish his seat on the Appropriations Committee pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation.”
In a strategic presentation to the Conference in early February, Boehner also told his colleagues that any ethical problems will not be ignored. “More to the point, I will simply not tolerate ethical misconduct within our conference,” he wrote. “Clear likelihood of serious transgressions will lead to suspension from important committee positions; guilt will lead to immediate and severe consequences.”
The new stance on internal policing is aided by a rank and file that is tired of taking political hits for their embattled colleagues. “These people create their own problems,” LaHood said. “We have been tarred and feathered and it’s going to take a while to get the tar off.”
LaHood also suggested that Members in question may find it harder to rake in campaign contributions from their colleagues in the upcoming election cycle. “Let me put it this way: Duke Cunningham asked me for money and I said ‘no’ then,” LaHood said. “But no one else has asked me.”
For their part, Democrats are unlikely to ease up on the GOP for orchestrating a “culture of corruption” in Congress — a political theme the party hammered in 2006 that helped win a majority.
“Republicans are as corrupt now as they were when they were in control,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Voters aren’t going to want to turn back the clock to the ‘pay to play’ Congress the Republicans ran.”
GOP leaders did not immediately say whether they would fill the vacancies on Appropriations and Intelligence. There is no shortage of Members interested in an Appropriations seat, but Lewis is likely to want to keep a California Member in the slot.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) has been a contender, but there have been a series of media reports in recent months questioning his real estate transactions that prompted leaders to skip over him last year when a vacancy opened up. GOP Reps. Jo Bonner (Ala.) and Joe Wilson (S.C.) have also expressed interest in a seat.