GOP Looks to Shore Up Ethics

House Republicans Are Polishing Image

Posted December 10, 2008 at 6:58pm

With the departure of Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) from his perch on the House Natural Resources Committee, Republicans successfully scrubbed another ethical blotch from their once-dingy Conference. But the House GOP is moving cautiously as it seeks to claim the ethical high ground amid a spate of recent stories tarnishing Democrats.

When asked about the emerging scandal involving Illinois’ Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, one GOP leader saw it as an opportunity for reform rather than partisan gain.

“I think it’s an opportunity to clean up the House. I don’t look at it as a way for partisan gain, but as an American. … There is a reason the poll ratings of Congress are so low,” said Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the incoming Chief Deputy Minority Whip.

McCarthy said a goal of many Members elected in the past couple of cycles, as well as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), has been to restore the public’s confidence in the institution of Congress.

“The quote from the Speaker has been that she wants to drain the swamp,” he said, referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “I think she has a lot of work to do in her own conference.”

Incoming House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) declined to comment specifically on Young, but he praised the Steering Committee’s actions in general.

“In general, what our Conference has done is put us back on track on transparency and accountability,” Cantor said.

Boehner began his cleanup campaign in April 2007 when he asked Reps. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) to relinquish their committee spots after unrelated FBI raids on their homes.

Former high-ranking GOP aides applauded the current leadership for insisting on high standards within their own ranks rather than simply attacking, noting the potential for a backlash is high.

“Ethics attacks can work in individual races but are lousy party messages, since no one party has cornered the market on morality or ethics,” said Stuart Roy, a former leadership aide and partner at Prism Public Affairs. “When you attack on ethical issues, you should beware because the blood on the knife may end up being your own.”

Incoming House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said the best way for Republicans to hold the ethical high ground was to ensure good behavior within their own Conference, but he stopped short of attacking Democrats.

Asked whether an ethics investigation should be launched into the possible involvement of Members in the Blagojevich scandal, Pence said that the matter concerned him but that he did not have all the information necessary to make that determination.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who will sit as the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the 111th Congress, said self-policing and rapid response is the key to maintaining a corruption-free Conference.

“The two things you have to do is you look at questionable practices early before they become behavior that will cause someone to have to leave Congress and you do it even within your Conference among your colleagues,” he said. “And secondly, you ensure between the time that there is an awareness of a significant breach and the time someone steps down or steps aside is the shortest possible time.”

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean cautioned his party against cashing in too early on Democratic ethics troubles. “I think the Republicans should take this time to clean up their own mess and make sure their Members are as squeaky-clean as they can be,” he said.

As spokesman for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Bonjean learned the hard way that scandals can break when you least expect. Weeks before House Republicans faced voters in the 2006 midterms, a firestorm erupted over then-Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) inappropriate electronic chats with House pages, aiding Democratic efforts to fan public perceptions of GOP corruption.

Bonjean said there is a lesson for Republicans in how Democrats managed their message amid those scandals: Don’t overplay your hand. “When a Democratic scandal erupts, you don’t have to do much. Just stand back and let them dig their own holes,” he said.

Democrats are scoffing at Republican attempts to turn the ethical tables. They note that the GOP has several sitting lawmakers facing federal investigation and argue that Democrats have moved quickly to address problems in their own ranks.

“The bottom line is when we needed to act, we did and we will do so in the future,” a Democratic leadership aide said, highlighting that the party passed sweeping ethics reform upon taking power two years ago.

Before winning back the House, as they sought the high ground on the ethics issue, Democrats set an unofficial standard for rebuking their own Members facing federal probes by removing them from committee assignments.

That year, Pelosi, then the Minority Leader, beat back pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus to force Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) from his perch on the Ways and Means Committee as a bribery indictment loomed.

Likewise, when news broke that Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) faced a federal inquiry into his personal financial dealings, he was forced aside as the ranking member on the House ethics committee, though allowed to keep a plum spot on the Appropriations Committee.

But the past few weeks have brought a fresh pile-up of ethics troubles for the majority party. The ethics panel probe into Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) widened this week to examine allegations raised in a New York Times article that he reversed long-standing opposition to a tax loophole after an energy company executive pledged $1 million to an education center named for the lawmaker.

Republicans this week gleefully circulated reports that Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) made fast money in a real estate deal with a campaign contributor and that Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), in line to chair the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, got caught on video in a 1982 sting operation stuffing $1,300 in cash into his pockets.