Nearly four years after taking control of Congress, Democrats are still at work draining that darned ethical swamp. Speaker Nancy E. Pelosi (D., Calif.) pledged that things would be different under her leadership. But the Capitol smells as awful as it did under Republican control.
In the last week alone, two long-serving House Democrats have been accused of violating ethics rules. Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, former chairman of the powerful committee that writes tax laws, was charged with 13 ethics counts ranging from tax violations to abuse of office. And Rep. Maxine Waters of California is accused of intervening on behalf of a bank in which her husband owned stock. Both lawmakers deny wrongdoing.
Rangel and Waters are still entitled to the presumption of innocence. But the public sees no difference between these developments and the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal that engulfed the House GOP prior to 2006, or the ethics complaints that drove former Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas out of office. Pelosi’s team did make improvements after Democrats took over in 2007. For example, they enacted a ban on lobbyists giving gifts to lawmakers. (Although there are absurd loopholes, such as the “toothpick rule” — lobbyist-paid receptions with hors d’oeuvres are permissible but sit-down meals eaten with silverware are not).
And they created an Office of Congressional Ethics that can investigate complaints and recommend action to the House Ethics Committee. The committee previously had been reluctant to discipline even, say, a lawmaker caught with cash in his freezer. This new office has put more pressure on the committee to police its own, which was the purpose all along.
So the tools for draining the swamp have improved, but the swamp creatures themselves haven’t changed. There are still far too many lawmakers with a bloated sense of entitlement who are angling to get whatever they can while they can. Republican lawmakers are giddily calling attention to the latest charges against Rangel and Waters, and why wouldn’t they? Only four years ago, the GOP lost control of its presumed thousand-year majority under very similar circumstances. Now Republican lawmakers see the path back from minority status in an election year.
And what if Democrats do lose control of the House? Say hello to Republican Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who once handed out campaign checks from the tobacco industry to lawmakers on the House floor at a time when the House was considering eliminating tobacco subsidies. There can never be too much attention paid to ethics enforcement in Congress. But the culture in Washington won’t change until voters start electing lawmakers who are truly committed to ethical public service.