In the run up to the Democratic takeover of Congress, Rep. Nancy Pelosi crisscrossed the country promising to make passing ethics reform her first order of business as speaker. But now, even before she takes the reins in January, she is being confronted with a series of tough ethics decisions that will determine whether her party will succeed at changing the culture of Capitol Hill.
That culture an ethos of rewarding power, electoral success and years of seniority won a not so surprising endorsement in Louisiana on Saturday. It was there that Democrat Rep. William Jefferson the congressman found by the FBI to have $90,000 in marked bills in his freezer was handily re-elected in a run-off race against a challenger from within his own party. Even as he may be indicted on bribery charges in the coming months, he is now pushing to be given back the prized seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee he was forced to surrender earlier this year. And he can count on support of the Congressional Black Caucus in putting the squeeze on Ms. Pelosi.
There's also yet to be resolved the issue of West Virginia Democrat Rep. Alan Mollohan. He was forced to step down this year as ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee and is under active FBI investigation over allegations he may have illegally enhanced his income by steering $250 million in federal earmarks to five nonprofit organizations staffed by his former aides and business partner. With the elections safely over, Mr. Mollohan is now inline to become chairman of the powerful Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FBI's budget.
A Mollohan advisor says he hasn't received any pressure from Democratic leaders such as Ms. Pelosi not to take the chairmanship, and says the congressman will actively defend himself if anyone seeks to block him. Mr. Mollohan responds to allegations that his net worth has grown from less than $320,000 in 1999 to between $6.8 million and $25.7 million in 2005 by saying his good fortune is largely due to canny real estate investments. And he brushes off reports that the FBI has subpoenaed records from his real estate company and is examining a nonprofit foundation that he set up.
Everyone deserves the presumption of innocence, even members of Congress. But if Ms. Pelosi wants to signal that she intends to stand by her promise to clean up the House, letting Mr. Mollohan serve as a backbencher until his ethical cloud is cleared up would be a good start. Unfortunately, Ms. Pelosi hasn't been quick to recognize potential wrong-doing by members as a problem.
After Mr. Mollohan's finances made the front page of The Wall Street Journal in April, she initially defended him by accusing Republicans of casting "aspersions on the independent and distinguished ranking member" of the Ethics Committee. But later she backtracked. After the New York Times editorialized that Mr. Mollohan should step down from his post on the committee, Ms. Pelosi promptly placed a phone call to him. Hours later he submitted a "temporary" resignation from the committee.
Both conservatives and liberals are now calling on Ms. Pelosi to acknowledge the conflict-of-interest problem of allowing Mr. Mollohan to run a committee that oversees the FBI's budget at a time when he is under investigation.
"Somebody who is under investigation should have no leverage over those investigating him, for reasons that are blindingly obvious," says Ken Boehm, the chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, who first brought the Mollohan ethics issue to light. "If the Democrats want to be taken seriously as the party of ethics reform, then every time one of their members gets into trouble, they're going to have to take it seriously," Melanie Sloan of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told Bloomberg News. She says there is a danger of a perception that the FBI might soft-pedal its investigation in order to secure a favorable budget.
As speaker, the ability to avoid such perceptions will be in Ms. Pelosi's hands. But over the past month she has already demonstrated a tin ear on such matters. Shortly after Election Day last month, she took the unusual step for an incoming speaker and took sides in a leadership race within her caucus. She endorsed and lobbied for her ally Rep. Jack Murtha to become majority leader, the House's No. 2 position. She did this despite on-the-record evidence that in 1981 Mr. Murtha only narrowly escaped severe sanction from the House Ethics Committee for alleged involvement in the Abscam bribery case.
Last month Ms. Pelosi also ran into trouble with her first choice for chairman of the Intelligence Committee. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, has reported that Ms. Pelosi privately made known that she was leaning towards installing Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings as chairman of the Intelligence Committee one of the most sensitive positions in Congress, especially at a time of war.
It wasn't long, however, before Mr. Hastings' colorful past he was once impeached and ousted from a federal judgeship by Congress on eight counts of bribery and conspiracy garnered negative publicity. Just as in the Mollohan case, Ms. Pelosi reversed course amid sharp public criticism. In this case, she tapped Texas Democrat Silvestre Reyes to run the Intelligence Committee.
Ethics-by-media coverage has so far kept Ms. Pelosi out of real trouble. But it's likely she will have to come up with a better way to govern once she becomes speaker next month.
Consider her pledge to make a ban on lobbyists or any outside group that employs them from arranging or funding congressional travel a top priority in the new Congress. Many of these so-called "fact-finding missions" are dressed-up junkets featuring golf outings and stays in sunny climes. "We have to recognize we got here (in the majority) because of corruption by the other side," says Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, the incoming chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Democratic Senator-elect Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who proposed a six-part ethics reform package, during the campaign, is even tougher. He told a group of business leaders in New York on Saturday that "we have to be very tough even very unforgiving on ethics" in the new Congress. He told me he favored a ban on private airplane flights taken by members of Congress whose costs are partially subsidized by special interests and said "we have to have some parameters" on the free trips those interests dole out to members they seek to influence.
For Ms. Pelosi the pressure will be on to narrowly craft any rules changes. After all, all 10 of the top congressional recipients of privately-funded travel since 2000 are Democrats. Even Rep. Marty Meehan, the Massachusetts Democrat who teamed up with GOP Rep. Chris Shays to propose a ban on privately funded travel, told Congressional Quarterly that it will be difficult to write new rules banning travel paid for by groups that employ lobbyists.
It also won't be easy to get a strict ban by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the incoming chairman of the House Ethics Committee. Based on the number of trips taken, she is the No. 1 traveler in the House, logging in at 74 trips since 2000, an average of almost one a month. Her journeys have included a 2005 Las Vegas conference paid for by the United Steelworkers and a speech in Barbados earlier this year sponsored by the National Bar Association.
"I make no apologies for the trips that I have taken," Rep. Jones said in a statement. She noted that she receives many speaking invitations because she is "the only African-American woman, and only Democratic woman on the Ways and Means Committee."
Democrats are in the awkward position of having won majorities in both houses of Congress in part because many voters perceived that Republican members had "gone native" in Washington and in a few cases become personally corrupt. Voters also believed the GOP Congress had wasted taxpayer dollars on excessive spending and pork-barrel earmarks. A McLaughlin & Associates exit poll found that even among voters who supported Democrats for Congress last month, a 45% to 40% plurality said they favored having a smaller government that delivers fewer services over a larger government that offers many services.
Ms. Pelosi has a delicate balancing act to perform as speaker. Many of her members can't wait to rev up the spending machine even more than Republicans did and are privately hostile to serious reform. She can engage in a bruising battle with them or throw in the towel early. Here are some markers to watch for:
Will she allow Rep. Mollohan to exercise jurisdiction over the same FBI that is investigating his personal finances?
Will she crack down on privately-funded travel as she proposed earlier this year, or will she give in to the demands of her more jet-setting colleagues?
How many of the 10,000 earmarks that died this month when conservative Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint forced the GOP Congress to adjourn without passing any new appropriations bills will be revived in February, when the stop-gap spending bills financing those agencies expire and Democrats are in charge?
It Speaker Pelosi hopes to keep her Democratic majority, she must realize the level of scrutiny that will be placed on her efforts to clean up what she calls "the culture of corruption" in Congress will be excruciatingly high. She's already learned that from the firestorms that erupted around the Murtha and Hastings cases. As the losing Republicans just proved, no political party can get away with saying one thing and doing something else for long.