Beware of Watchdog

Melanie Sloan is at a loss.

“I would never have thought that the Democrats would be so … I just need more words for ‘spineless.' I don't have enough,” she says. “She turns around and grabs a thesaurus from her desk. “‘Wimpy,'” she reads, “‘irresolute,' ‘chicken,' ‘weak-willed,' ‘timid,' ‘lily-livered' -- I like that one -- ‘without backbone,' ‘gutless.'” At last she's satisfied. “‘Gutless' is good.”

Sloan, 39, is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a 3-year-old watchdog outfit that Republican congressional flacks commonly describe as a “Democratic front group.” With front groups like these, who needs moles?

Democrats say that they will mount a major drive on ethics heading into next year's elections. Given that, you might think that CREW, an unabashedly liberal organization founded as a progressive answer to the notorious Clinton-baiting outfit Judicial Watch, would count among the Democrats' closest allies in that fight. That it isn't says a great deal about the vast amount of work the Democrats still need to do in seeking to replicate Newt Gingrich's famed 1994 ethics-campaign strategy and spark a throw-the-bums-out electoral rout of the majority party next year.

* * *

I met Sloan at CREW's Dupont circle office on a Thursday in late September, during “literally our busiest week ever,” as she put it. That Monday morning, CREW had released an 89-page report profiling the 13 most ethically challenged House members beyond Tom DeLay. On Monday afternoon, Sloan wrote and filed a complaint with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics against Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, calling on the panel to investigate the insider-trading allegations that had emerged as a major story that weekend. Then, on Wednesday, the big one hit: DeLay was indicted.

“It's like the perfect storm,” Sloan marvels. “There's so much coming together at once it's almost hard to believe it's happening … . I think the confluence of all these stories really might change the political dynamics here. But” -- Sloan inevitably hastened to add -- “if it does, it won't be thanks to the Democrats.”

The signal event marking CREW's disillusionment with the Democrats was also the organization's breakthrough as a player in Washington: the mammoth ethics complaint against DeLay it drafted last year at the behest of Texas Democrat Chris Bell. Bell, a victim of DeLay's re-redistricting scheme in Texas, filed the complaint with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (commonly known as the House Ethics Committee) in the summer of 2004 as a parting shot.

In doing so, Bell temporarily broke the unofficial ethics cease-fire maintained by the parties since 1997, which Democratic leaders have, by all appearances, supported throughout the Bush era. Similarly, Bell had no support from the leadership and close to zero public endorsements from fellow Democrats when he filed his complaint last year. “After I filed it,” says Bell, now running for governor in Texas, “it would get back to me that some people thought that I should back off and weren't pleased with my action.”

Indeed, even after the complaint led to two Ethics Committee admonishments of DeLay (and prolonged negative press for him), House Democrats seemed eager to reinstate the truce. No complaints have been filed since Bell's. In the past year, CREW shopped around to various members complaints against Congressmen Bob Ney of Ohio and Duke Cunningham of California; nobody has taken them up. Sloan unambiguously asserts that Nancy Pelosi is working to keep it that way. The House minority leader's spokeswoman, Jennifer Crider, responds that “Nancy Pelosi has been very clear that she's not a party to any ethics truce.”

The irony is that this watchdog group -- more than any other -- might have been expected to prove a politically useful ally for the Democrats. If the mainstream goo-goo groups that trace their origins to the late-1960s and early-'70s reform era have an air of fustiness and determined nonpartisanship to them, CREW, the scrappy new kid on the block, is just as clearly a creature of the Clinton wars and the polarized Bush era. “From the beginning, we wanted to be more aggressive than other good-government groups were,” explains Sloan. “I have a lot of respect for Public Citizen and Democracy 21 and Common Cause, but they don't do what we do.” CREW aims for attention-grabbing rhetoric, and is usually the first outfit to draft ethics complaints, issue Freedom of Information Act requests, pursue lawsuits, or call for investigations when a scandal breaks. “People in Washington always worry about their words, in part because they're always worrying in the back of their mind about their next job,” Sloan explains. “I don't do that. I'm known, in fact, for having a bit of a big mouth.”

A Delaware native and University of Chicago Law School graduate, Sloan worked as a Democratic Hill aide in the 1990s. She was prosecuting sex crimes at the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District when, in 2002, she was approached by Washington lawyer Norm Eisen to discuss heading up a new liberal-watchdog and legal-advocacy group.

CREW began as a one-woman shop with a shoestring budget in early 2003, but Sloan's big mouth and flair for publicity quickly made CREW's reputation and garnered it sufficient resources to expand. Last year Sloan hired a deputy director, Naomi Seligman, from Media Matters for America; this year she hired a counsel and two more staffers. The board of directors consists of Louis Mayberg, president of a mutual-fund firm, Donna Edwards of the Arca Foundation, Philadelphia-based attorney and Democratic fund-raiser Dan Berger, and pollster Mark Penn.

* * *

What's behind the Democrats' continued reluctance to file ethics complaints? Simple fear of Republican retaliation partly explains it, but there's also a specific political strategy at work, an effort to keep the myriad threads of Republican ethical scandal as untainted as possible by obvious partisan fingerprints. A respect for Congress as an institution -- hardly something that plagues Republicans -- also hinders the Democrats' boldness in pressing the attack.

Sloan acknowledges that such institutional concerns, and not merely cowardice and corruption, play some role in Democrats' aversion to filing complaints. “I do think there's a generational aspect,” she says. “Democrats of Pelosi's generation think that [starting ethics wars] just is not what they came to Congress to do. There's more of a concern for the institution.” When, during a conference call, I asked Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid for a comment on CREW's ethics complaint against Frist, his response was emblematic. “This is somebody I work with every day, and I think we're going to have to just let this one play out,” he demurred.

Whether such a cautious strategy will really register during the high-decibel tumult of an election year is a real question. Democrats eager to replay Gingrich's storied '94 sweep would do well to recall just how ugly and fundamentally base the Republican's relentless drumbeat of scandal-mongering and ethics allegations was in the years leading up to that election. Gingrich knew that volume and outré viciousness mattered in such fights -- and that the actual filing of ethics complaints, which triggered processes that guaranteed perpetual press coverage, was a baseline requirement of any political strategy on ethics. As Gingrich saw it (contravening the views of the institutionalist minority leader at the time, Bob Michel) an all-out ethics war would indeed spark a generalized collapse in public esteem for Congress -- a necessary precondition for the party locked out of power to grasp victory.

There are serious costs to running such a maximalist ethics assault, both in the Democratic casualties of an ethics war and in the tarnishing of certain basic ideals about government and its institutions to which liberals rightly pledge allegiance. But if Democrats finally come to decide that such an effort is worth pursuing, they'll likely find that they have an unofficial ally among the goo-goos. “The thing with Democrats is always this constant inclination to want to be fair, even when the other side isn't playing fair,” laments Sloan. “There's a difficulty realizing that sometimes there's a need to act off the other team's playbook.”

Sam Rosenfeld is a Prospect staff writer.