On July 5, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) bought ads in the local papers of six Republican representatives airing questions about various ethical shenanigans and corruption charges. The ad purchase amounted to a measly $36,000, but the Dems promise that this is only the beginning of a national campaign centered on Republican corruption in the run-up to the midterm elections next year.
This is an obviously worthy strategy -- and God knows Dems will never lack for material to work from. But alas, some Democrats still appear ominously disinclined to emulate the great lesson of Newt Gingrich's attacks on majority congressional corruption in the early 1990s: You can't run effectively on ethics without getting your hands a bit dirty.
In late June, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held the third in its series of hearings on the sprawling casino-lobbying scandal centering on former Tom DeLay cronies Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon. Most observers have felt confident that this multifaceted saga -- which implicates numerous Republican operatives and lawmakers beyond the House majority leader and is the subject of an ongoing joint criminal task force probe carried out by FBI, IRS, and Interior Department investigators -- would inevitably end up tainting the Republican Party as a whole and yielding political dividends for the Democrats.
The problem is, Democrats seem to have mistakenly assumed that committee Chairman John McCain would do their partisan work for them. In fact, the Arizona “maverick,” eyeing an '08 presidential run, has made it abundantly clear that his committee's investigation will not touch Republican lawmakers, assuring Senate colleagues of as much in a widely reported meeting in March. With money from Abramoff's Indian clients having been connected not only to DeLay but also to Congressman Bob Ney and Senators Conrad Burns and Mark Vitter, such a self-imposed restriction “obviously makes for a pretty huge hole in the investigation,” according to Naomi Seligman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
And, sure enough, the June 22 hearing (focusing on the Mississippi Choctaw tribe) aired plenty of fun details about Abramoff and Scanlon's various shenanigans, particularly their use of myriad front groups to launder casino money. But barely a lawmaker's name was mentioned in three and a half hours of testimony and questioning. Indeed, in his apparent efforts to dampen the political explosiveness of the hearing, McCain went further than merely ignoring the role of sitting lawmakers in the saga; he neglected in the end to require that high-level GOP operatives Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, both of whom had been subpoenaed by the committee, actually appear and give testimony at the hearing.
If McCain's tightrope walk is unsurprising given his political ambitions, one might have expected ranking member Byron Dorgan to push the discussion in a more political direction. One would have been disappointed. During his questioning at the hearing, Dorgan moved perfunctorily through each witness, even neglecting the opportunity to press the president of the right-wing National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) when the subject arose of a 2000 trip to Scotland taken by DeLay and Abramoff with tribal money funneled through the NCPPR. Democrats, meanwhile, have raised no public objection to McCain's restrictions on the investigation's scope. There is also little indication that the committee's minority staff – which lacks its own investigative counsel – or members of Dorgan's office have participated much in digging through the thousands of documents that have been gathered. (Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt confirmed that the investigation has been conducted fully under the purview of McCain and his staff thus far.)
Dorgan made several comments on the 22nd expressing an interest in holding a joint hearing with the Senate Finance Committee to look at the role played by 501(c) nonprofit outfits as money conduits and front groups for lobbyists. This could presumably provide one way to boost the political potency of the investigation by shining the spotlight directly on operatives like Reed and Norquist. But with McCain having announced his plan to hold just one more hearing on the investigation before issuing a report, time is running out for the Democrats to push for expanding the its scope. Why has it taken so long to make such a push?
Similar punch-pulling seems evident among House Democrats, who, even while announcing their intention to nationalize next year's elections around ethics, still appear wary of coming across as too partisan in their charges. CREW has drafted an ethics complaint against Ney (for his alleged role in defrauding the Abramoff-represented Tigua tribe of Texas) and called for the House Ethics Committee to investigate California Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (for an array of innovative housing arrangements crafted with the apparent assistance of various interested parties), but House rules require an actual member to bring a complaint before the panel. So far, not a single Democratic member has been willing to bring one forward.
Clearly the Democrats' hope is that the now-functioning ethics panel will begin inquiries into both lawmakers' actions without the instigation of a member complaint. In the cases of Ney and Cunningham, this may be true, but they surely aren't the only Republicans that Democrats see as tainted by corruption and deserving of some attention. Such reasoning, moreover, only illustrates the surfeit of caution at the heart of the Democrats' thread-the-needle strategy on ethics -- the attempt to score points off the issue without leaving too many partisan fingerprints. It's time to update the strategy.
Last year, Texas Democratic freshman Chris Bell broke the seven-year ethics “truce” between the parties by bringing complaints against DeLay to the Ethics Committee; he's now worried that the truce has been reinstated. Bell, who lost his seat in November as a result of DeLay's re-redistricting gambit in Texas, tells the Prospect that while the Democratic leadership didn't explicitly oppose his action, “only one fellow member publicly supported the filing.” Nancy Pelosi and other leaders didn't comment on the complaint until after the House Ethics Committee handed out admonishments to DeLay last fall in response -- the same admonishments that helped to jump-start media attention to ethics issues in the House. This should be instructive for Democratic leaders. “I don't think most people really knew how they should handle it,” recalls Bell. “There was, and still is, a huge amount of caution about these things.”
It is precisely that caution that Democrats could stand to lose. They might recall the feathers that Gingrich ruffled within his own Republican conference (and among his superiors in the minority leadership) when he unrelentingly hyped congressional scandals in the early '90s that not only cast the institution in a harsh light but also implicated various Republicans. As far as he was concerned, such casualties on his side were collateral damage in an ethics campaign that had to be pushed with maximal ferocity if it was to be effective.
Whether Democrats now are showing crippling high-mindedness or a craven desire to protect some of their own ethically challenged members by pulling punches in their campaign against Republican corruption, the pointlessness of an ethics campaign that no one actually pushes should be clear. Press coverage and official inquiries won't happen on their own. Only sustained and potent Democratic action will drive them.
“You can't have it both ways,” Bell says simply. “You either get in the fight or you cede ethics as an issue.”
Sam Rosenfeld is a Prospect Web writer.
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