Democrats Are the New Ethics Story

Democrats Are the New Ethics Story

By Kimberley Strassel - December 19, 2008

A note to all those visitors who will soon flood Washington for the inauguration: Be careful of the "swamp."

That would be the swamp Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to drain when she led her party to victory in 2006. The GOP had been rocked by scandal, and Mrs. Pelosi and Democrats won, in part, by promising to clean up the "culture of corruption" that pervaded Washington.

Instead, Democrats now have an image problem. The real issue isn't so much Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's Senate-seat auction, as it is the focus that his scandal has directed toward a wider assortment of Democratic troubles. This isn't great timing for Barack Obama, who campaigned on cleaner government.

The Blagojevich drama is titillating enough, and local Democrats' dithering over how to fill Mr. Obama's seat guarantees it will remain a storyline longer than is comfortable. But the Illinois drama has also thrust new light on the ongoing ethical controversies of House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel. At the rate the House Ethics Committee is receiving complaints -- over Mr. Rangel's real-estate problems, tax problems, his privately sponsored trips to the Caribbean, and donations to his center in New York -- this too will make headlines for a while.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune published a new story about Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who racked up $420,000 through a series of suspicious real-estate deals. Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, came under scrutiny this fall for questionable earmarking. West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan has been under investigation for a separate earmarking mess. And then there's Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who has yet to answer questions about the sweetheart mortgage deal he received from Countrywide.

One unfortunate side effect of Mr. Obama's long coattails was that they helped the party's more ethically challenged members get re-elected. Pennsylvania's Paul Kanjorski and John Murtha, who both struggled to keep their seats because of earmarking travails, will continue to answer questions about their actions. Mrs. Pelosi lost a problem when Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson -- with his $90,000 in freezer cash -- lost in November. Yet she has potentially gained a new headache with Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who may have wanted that Obama seat a little too much.

There are more. Shockingly, this has happened despite all those campaign-finance laws, and Congress's legislation to ban lobbyist lunches. The members took credit for those publicity stunts, and went right back to their "culture" of earmarking.

The speaker's reluctance to tackle these problems is odd considering she is a seasoned pol who surely knows nothing sucks the life out of a party more quickly than a good round of tittle-tattle. The Republican crew of Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney sank the GOP easily enough, quite aside from its other problems.

Mrs. Pelosi must also know Republicans are belatedly getting their own house in order, at least in terms of optics. The GOP is lucky that most of its worst offenders, such as Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, have now been dealt with by federal prosecutors or voters. To further inoculate his side, House Minority Leader John Boehner also recently moved to strip Alaska Rep. Don Young -- allegedly under federal investigation -- of his top slot at the resources committee. He intends to turn Democratic infractions into a political story. He knows how easy it is to do.

Mrs. Pelosi's problem is politics. Her refusal to temporarily remove Mr. Rangel from Ways and Means is in part a reticence to further anger the Congressional Black Caucus, which remains steamed that she worked for Mr. Jefferson's ouster from his seat on Ways and Means. Worse, next in line for Mr. Rangel's slot is Rep. Pete Stark, an off-the-charts liberal who Mrs. Pelosi would struggle to leash.

Is Mr. Obama taking notes? The president-elect is discovering the limits of his campaign strategy of ignoring inconvenient questions. One of his great achievements this year was to convince voters that his meteoric rise was unconnected to the Chicago political machine. His silence in the Blagojevich scandal has mainly served to make people wonder if that was true.

His Clinton-era appointments threaten to unleash their own round of stories, from a rehash of Eric Holder's role in the Marc Rich pardon, to Bill Clinton's foundation donors. And Mrs. Pelosi's congressional problems threaten to become his own. Mr. Rangel, Mr. Reyes and Mr. Murtha -- to name but a few -- all head bodies that will be central to Mr. Obama's agenda.

One of President Bush's mistakes was his refusal to police the spending and earmarks that led his party to temptation, or to push his party to quarantine its liabilities. If the president-elect wants to avoid the same error, he might consider what his promises of good government mean in practice, especially as regards his own party.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

Kimberley Strassel

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