In the House, Bipartisan Finger-Pointing on Ethics

John Boehner

Shades of 2006: House Democrats are once again trying to make political inroads against majority Republicans by accusing them of fostering an atmosphere of lax ethics and allowing misconduct to go unpunished.

On the Hill

On the Hill

Inside Congressional politics.

Trying to take advantage of new disclosures about a handful of House Republicans, Democrats have started a “Republican House of Scandal” section on the Web site of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and are identifying a “corrupt Republican of the month.”

“It is time we rid Congress of these sleazy Republicans,” the site says.

Democrats are obviously trying to repeat the success they had six years ago with their attacks on a “Republican culture of corruption” tied to Representative Nancy Pelosi’s promise to “drain the swamp” if Democrats were put in control of the House, as they ultimately were.

But Republicans are not all that impressed by the effort so far. They note that Democrats have a few problems of their own.

“Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats are still swimming in the unethical swamp they promised to drain in 2006,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Hearing the party of Maxine Waters and Charlie Rangel lecture on ethics issues is like Anthony Weiner teaching a course on how to maintain standards on Twitter.”

Mr. Lindsay was referring to Mr. Rangel, the veteran House Democrat from New York who lost his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee and was censured for failing to properly account for his finances. Ms. Waters, the senior banking committee member from California, came under an ethics cloud for accusations that she improperly interceded in a request for bailout funds for a bank her husband owned stock in. Mr. Weiner, another New York Democrat, resigned last year after sending inappropriate images on Twitter.

Still, Republicans have potentially serious troubles of their own, including reports that freshman Representative Michael G. Grimm of New York had irregularities in his campaign fund-raising and that Representative Vern Buchanan of Florida, a top fund-raiser for House Republicans, faces various investigations into his own fund-raising activities. Then there is Representative Spencer Bachus, the Alabama Republican and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who has come under scrutiny for insider stock trading and has spurred consideration of new restrictions on such trading.

“Republicans’ top priorities are their special interest allies, ultrawealthy campaign contributors, their campaign treasuries and their personal bank accounts — not the best interest of middle-class families and seniors,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But so far 2012 does not appear to be 2006, a year when both sides agree that Republicans were hurt by unfolding scandals, including the House page investigation surrounding former Representative Mark A. Foley of Florida. That story broke in late September of that year, and Republicans had little time to get beyond it before the election.

And that was just the latest of the Republican cases of misconduct to be raised during the party’s 12-year run as the power in the House. The Jack Abramoff scandal was still resonating; Tom Delay, the former majority leader, had resigned just a few months earlier; and the former majority leader still cast a long shadow even as Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who would eventually be jailed, had to announce that he would not seek re-election.

The bribery conviction of former Representative Randy Cunningham had come just a year earlier so the charge that Republicans had created a culture of corruption stuck and helped build a public mood against them.

Now Republicans have been in power for less than two years and while some of their members are under scrutiny, it is unclear how far Democrats can go with the ethics-related campaign, particularly when some of their own members have had issues.

When “60 Minutes” did its high-profile story on insider trading in Congress last November, both Speaker John A. Boehner and Ms. Pelosi, the top Democrat, were in the spotlight for their own practices – bipartisanship at last in the House. Both denied that they had used information obtained due to their lofty positions in making investments, but viewers saw them having to answer tough questions.

In some respects, the claims of misconduct and nest-feathering almost don’t matter, because Congress is held in such abysmal regard by the public at the moment. Polls show approval ratings for the institution near or at historic lows, and there is little room to drop lower even if the entire House faced an ethics inquiry. Democrats fare somewhat better than majority Republicans and probably hope that by pushing the notion of Republican malfeasance, they can maintain that separation.

In some respects, House Republicans pioneered the approach of gaining politically by accusing the opposing party of abusing its power. The original 1994 takeover engineered by Newt Gingrich was built on the House bank scandal and other cases of institutional wrongdoing that involved leading members of both parties but fell harder on Democrats who had run the House for four decades.

No doubt the claims of misconduct can take a toll on individual members, though Mr. Bachus just survived a primary last week. More likely they will just add to public disgust with Congress. As far as voters are concerned, lawmakers are already in a whole lot of trouble with them.

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