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House Cleaning

How quickly they forget. The 2006 midterm election that gave Democrats both chambers of Congress wasn't entirely a vote of confidence in the party's leadership or policy acumen. It was a vote against the Republican Party. In the run-up to the election, Democrats hammered on the failures of the Iraq war and the incompetency of the Bush administration, but one narrative stuck best: corruption. At the time, Republicans were reeling from a raft of scandals--there was Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, and naughty instant-messager Mark Foley. In the face of this malfeasance, Nancy Pelosi repeatedly promised to "drain the swamp." The meme took hold: Exit polls from the 2006 races showed that 42 percent of voters listed corruption as their top issue.

Fast forward to 2008. Barack Obama came to Washington promising an end to "politics as usual," meaning, in large part, the town's culture of impunity and its cozy relationship with moneyed interests. So, it is disheartening now to watch scandals brewing around two of the House’s most powerful Democrats without the least acknowledgement from
either the speaker or the president.

First, there's the probe of House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel. His scandal seems to snowball with every month. Late August brought the stunning revelation that Rangel failed to note two bank accounts, each containing somewhere in the range of $250,000 and $500,000, on past financial disclosure forms. Add to this the unreported $75,000 in income from a beachfront villa, illegal rent-stabilized apartments, and other problems, and you begin to understand why it is taking the ethics committee so long to sift through all of the complaints. If that weren’t bad enough, there’s the brazen condescension with which Rangel brushes off the allegations. "I recognize that all of you have an obligation to ask questions," Rangel recently told reporters, "knowing that there’s none of you smart enough to frame it in such a way that I’m going to respond." This is the reply of a man who forgot over a half-million dollars worth of his assets!

There is also the matter of John Murtha, currently said to be under investigation by the ethics committee for his ties to a lobbying firm run by a one-time congressional staffer who worked with him. The firm stands accused of creating straw donors for congressional campaigns. Murtha is also connected, by virtue of the millions in earmarks he has used to prop up his district's defense contractors, to a myriad of shady companies--including one run by a convicted drug dealer who allegedly misused federal funds for personal projects. (For a definitive account of these scandals, read Jason Zengerle’s "Murthaville" in the September 9 issue.) Like Rangel, Murtha is maddeningly nonchalant about accusations of ethical lapses. "If I'm corrupt," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this spring, "it's because I take care of my district."

Punishing the lawmakers for their flagrant abuses of power would be uncomfortable, but the right thing to do. Pelosi, however, seems content to bury the issue, while praying that nobody pays attention. She has reportedly made the decision to overlook Murtha's alleged misdeeds against the wishes of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. And, in early September, it was reported that Rangel will maintain chairmanship of the committee that writes tax laws for the nation, in spite of his inability to pay his own taxes.

Are Murtha and Rangel the moral equivalents of, say, Abramoff? Not exactly. But try making that argument to angry voters in this political climate. Headed into the next election, Republicans will try to tie Pelosi and Co. to the financial bailouts. They will portray Democrats as the crowd that will do anything to help its banker friends. So, why compound this political problem by leaving men like Rangel and Murtha in such powerful jobs, where they can be turned into such potent symbols?  It would be naïve to pretend that Pelosi didn’t ascend to the speaker's chair by sometimes exploiting the same cronyism she later promised to abandon, or that she hasn’t formed deep, personal bonds over the years with these men. But the speaker isn’t naïve, either. She needs to strip them both of their chairmanships and make public examples of their bad behavior, to show voters that the Democratic Party doesn't selectively tolerate sleaze--before it's too late.