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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

RNC: The Dems’ Ethical Embarrassments

A new ad buy from the Republican National Committee departs from the subject of health care, focusing instead on another theme the GOP wants to emphasize as the midterm elections approach: the Democrats’ recent ethics travails.

The ad, pointedly called "Pelosi’s Failure," begins with a clip of Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California promising "the most open and most ethical Congress in history." Pelosi said that on the Tuesday night in November 2006 when Democrats gained control of the House and she was poised to become speaker.

Pelosi, Nov. 7, 2006: The American people voted to restore integrity and honesty in Washington, D.C., and the Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.

The ad then cuts to the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, longtime New York lawmaker Charlie Rangel, who is assailed for "breaking ethics rules" and "failing to pay taxes." Pelosi, the narrator says, "defended him for nearly two years."

The ad is right on these points. Rangel was admonished by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (more widely known as the ethics committee) for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean; the panel said his staff knew of the corporate underwriting, which violates House gift rules, and that he "was responsible for the knowledge and actions of his staff." In addition, Rangel has admitted to failing to declare as income for tax purposes $75,000 in rental payments on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic.

Rangel has been a political ally of Pelosi, and she has supported Rangel and his chairmanship as the investigations, which began in 2008, have continued, even in the face of reported White House unhappiness that Rangel had stayed at his post too long. She even stuck up for him after the ethics panel admonished him, at least at first. The committee "said he did not knowingly violate the rules," Pelosi said to reporters. "I think it’s quite a statement to hold members accountable for what their staff knew."

But Rangel finally relinquished his gavel March 3, facing an increasing volume of calls to do so even from members of his own party, and having had a meeting with Pelosi the night before. Unnamed sources said that Pelosi told Rangel he had to step down, according to newspaper reports. In a statement announcing his decision, he said he was doing so "in order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections." The ethics panel is still investigating three other matters involving Rangel.

Should Rangel have stepped down sooner? That’s a subjective question, but for a little context, we asked Melanie Sloan, who runs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group, whether committee chairmen or chairwomen normally give up those posts when they are under investigation. "Not usually," Sloan said. For example, a Justice Department investigation of Rep. Alan Mollohan, a West Virginia Democrat, was ongoing when the Dems took over the House in January 2007 and he became chairman of an appropriations subcommittee. He recused himself from votes on matters having to do with the FBI or the attorney general’s office, but maintained his chairmanship. The Justice Department ended its probe earlier this year without filing charges. Democrat Maxine Waters chairs a panel of the Financial Services Committee, a position she hasn’t left despite an ethics committee investigation into her interactions with the Treasury Department over a bank in which her husband was a significant stockholder.

And Republicans haven’t shown any greater willingness to hand off their gavels, Sloan noted. GOP Rep. Jerry Lewis didn’t relinquish his chairmanship of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in 2006, when he became the subject of a federal probe into his dealings with a lobbying firm that had hired some of his staff members.

And surely the most striking recent incident of a lawmaker holding on to a powerful post despite myriad ethics inquiries was that of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. In September and October 2004, DeLay was admonished by the House ethics committee on three separate matters. He was also under investigation at the time by a Texas grand jury. But he didn’t resign his leadership post until the next year, when he was indicted in connection with allegations that he helped fund a Texas GOP redistricting effort by laundering prohibited donations through another entity. The appetite for losing DeLay was so low that the previous year, as the investigation was ongoing, the House Republican Conference tried to protect him by ditching its rule that required leaders to step down from their posts when indicted on any charge with a sentence of at least two years. The rule change lasted less than two months; mounting public criticism led DeLay himself to ask that it be restored. Finally, in April 2006, DeLay said he wouldn’t seek reelection.

Lawmakers naturally cling to power. We’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Rangel should have been allowed to do so for so long.

The Massa Matter

The ad follows the Rangel segment with a reference to another Democratic congressman, freshman Rep. Eric Massa of New York, who announced on March 5 that he would resign “after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced,” just as the ad says. "Pelosi? Called it rumor," it continues.

Pelosi did say this after the news broke:

Pelosi, March 4, 2010: There had been a rumor, but just that. … A one-, two-, three-person rumor that had been reported to Mr. Hoyer’s office and reported to my staff, which they did not report to me because you know what? This is rumor city. There are rumors.

Media reports said Massa’s chief of staff met with staff from the office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Feb. 8, telling them that Massa had groped young male aides and otherwise acted inappropriately with them. Hoyer’s staff told the congressman of the allegations the next day, and one day after that, Hoyer’s staff told Massa’s deputy chief of staff to report the matter to the House ethics committee within two days, or Hoyer himself would do so. Hoyer’s staff also notified Pelosi’s staff about the situation.

According to the Washington Post, Massa’s chief of staff had met with a Pelosi aide in October to say that Massa "was living in a townhouse with a group of young, male staffers, that he routinely used foul language in the office and that he had recently asked a young male aide" in Democratic Rep. Barney Frank’s office to dinner. Pelosi’s spokesman told the Post that the Pelosi aide "believed the chief of staff was going to ask Representative Massa to move out of the house." The Pelosi aide thought that was the right thing to do. "There’s nothing in the conversation that rose to the level of an allegation that he thought he had to act on," the spokesman said.

On MSNBC on March 11, Pelosi conveyed the same sense that the information given to her office in October "didn’t come close to an allegation."

But the same day, the House voted 402-1 to refer to the ethics panel a Republican-backed resolution calling for the panel to resume its investigation of Massa’s activities, which it had closed after Massa resigned. The GOP has urged the panel to examine what Democratic leaders knew and how they handled it.

Who knew what and when was also a concern in the tawdry saga of Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned in 2006 after ABC News did a story on sexually suggestive e-mails that Foley had been sending to underage boys serving as House pages. Charges that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, also a Republican, and others in the party knew for some time that Foley was a problem but hadn’t acted to oust him were amplified by Democrats.

The Foley incident and other Republican scandals, such as those involving lawmakers’ dealings with now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff, were the impetus behind Pelosi’s pledge that the Democrats would run "the most ethical Congress in history." Exit polls showed that the issue had resonated with voters, to the benefit of Democrats.

And Democrats defend their record on ethics. They point to new, tighter gift rules put in place under Pelosi’s leadership. And in 2008, she wore down opposition to creating a new Office of Congressional Ethics, a panel of non-lawmakers that investigates allegations and sends recommendations on to the Committee on Standards. Just this week, Democrats announced that earmarks for for-profit companies would be banned going forward.

So, is the House under Nancy Pelosi the "most ethical" in history? Lawmakers have human foibles, and it’s impossible to keep all of them from getting into trouble. In that sense, ethics has little to do with party labels, and Pelosi promised something she couldn’t control. But watchdog groups do give Pelosi and the Democrats credit for putting mechanisms in place that could hold House members more accountable. "The existence of OCE [Office of Congressional Ethics] in and of itself, and the way it has performed, makes the case that the Democrats have made a difference," Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and a longtime observer of political misbehavior, told us.

Left Unsaid

The most starkly misleading point in the RNC ad is a fleeting one: A newspaper headline flashes on screen, reading "House Ethics Panel Investingating [sic] Rep. Stark." That would be Pete Stark, a longtime Democratic lawmaker from California.

What the ad fails to show is any comparable headline saying that the panel unanimously voted to clear Stark. On Jan. 28, it issued a statement and report saying that Stark:

Committee on Standards, Jan. 28: …did not violate any provision of the code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation or other standard of conduct applicable to his conduct in the performance of his duties or the discharge of his responsibilities relating to a state law requirement that all Maryland homeowners submit a one-time application to verify eligibility for a property tax credit called the Homestead Tax Credit.