Louisiana Rep. Jefferson at Center of Political Storm
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi claimed that booting scandal embroiled Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson from the House Ways and Means Committee proved the Democrats meant business in assailing corruption. It was tough talk, but based on past practice, that's all it may be.
Jefferson was a soft mark. He has not been indicted, and vehemently declares his innocence in an alleged bribe scheme. But a mountain of federal documents, an incriminating videotape, plea bargains by aides and a business associate, an FBI raid on his office and a prior ethics complaint against him by a Congressional watch-dog group are a strong hint that something is badly awry in the congressman's financial dealings.
The luckless Jefferson also fell victim to bad political timing. With mid-term elections a few months away, Democrats badly need a hot button issue to tap public fury at what's perceived as a Wild West, deal-making Congress where anything and everybody is for sale. Congress rates only a slight notch above Bush's bottom-scraping poll ratings, and corruption is the single biggest reason for public scorn. In an AP-IPSOS poll, nearly 90 percent of Americans called political corruption a major problem. At the heart of the corruption knock is the staggering storehouse of dollars. The congressional watchdog group the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics estimates that lobbyists and special interests groups shoveled $13 billion out to Congress, the White House and federal agencies for deals, political favors, to massage legislation and for assorted pork barrel projects during the past five years. The alleged deal-making got Jefferson into boiling water and made him the perfect sacrificial lamb.
But his sacrifice was a political necessity. When Pelosi and the Democrats pounded the Republicans for the corrupt antics of the disgraced former House bigwig Tom DeLay, the Republicans would have instantly shot back, "But what about Jefferson?"
Yet the removal of one politically brittle Congressman hardly signals the dawning of a new day for ethics reform. The House had many chances to clean its stable before it dumped Jefferson, and each time it deliberately fumbled the ball. In 2005, the House shoved through a rule that if the ethics panel chair, who's a Republican, and the ranking Democrat fail to approve an ethics complaint for investigation within 45 days, it was dead. In other words, no matter how blatant a house member's action, there would be no probe, no violation and no sanctions. Democrats blasted the rule change as a very transparent cover to shield De Lay from an ethics probe or worse.
It was. But the ethics panel took the hint. It reduced its staff and barred outside groups from filing ethics complaints against House members. Under the new rule, a complaint from the outside had to be certified by a House member. The chance of that happening is virtually nil. That slammed the door on credible groups that have brought documented complaints of abuse. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, for instance, called for an ethics probe of Jefferson a month before Pelosi made the demand. Their complaint almost certainly spurred Pelosi to act.
The rule changes assured that complaints against wayward Democrats could also die a quiet death. In 2005, a congressional watchdog groups publicly branded 13 House members as the most corrupt. The unsavory roster included Democrats and Republicans. Jefferson was one of those named. While Republicans are deservedly lambasted for watering down ethics reform, Democrats gave no public indication that they were in a mood to storm the barricades to wage war publicly against the rule changes. In fact, when Democrats proposed a tepid package of measures that would put clamps on some spending by lobbyists and broaden the category of ethics offenses, they made no effort to get Republicans to endorse the reforms. It was the perfect time to publicly call Republicans on the carpet for obstructing ethics reform. DeLay's indictment, Randy Duke Cunningham's jailing, and top gun lobbyist Jack Abramoff's murky dealings had cast on ugly glare on Congressional corruption.
In the fall election battles, Democrats will do everything they can to pin the tag of corruption on Republicans. But words and media-genic labels can't substitute for an ethics reform law with real bite, and slapping firm penalties on the most outrageous House members on the take.
In giving Jefferson the boot, Pelosi took a step down the right path. But it was too easy a step. Congress must do more than play one-upmanship with its ethics investigations. If that's all it does, it will confirm what much of the public already believes -- that Congress doesn't have enough ethics to begin with.
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June 19, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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