WASHINGTON — Unethical behavior by lawmakers helped Democrats win control of the Capitol in the 2006 elections, and the same issue could come back to haunt the party this November.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, faced with new and ongoing allegations of ethical lapses by some Democrats, vigorously defended her party's record Thursday and said that she'd taken strong steps to clean up the House of Representatives during her three-year tenure.
Watchdog groups say, however, that Pelosi's actions have fallen woefully short of House Democrats' promise to "drain the swamp" of unethical behavior, a vow they emphasized when they won control of the House in 2006 after Republican corruption scandals centered on disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Now Republicans see an important campaign issue emerging for November's congressional elections.
Last week the House ethics committee admonished Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., for taking two corporate-paid trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008, but it didn't force him to step aside as the chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. As Republicans called for his ouster, Rangel stepped aside Wednesday in a bid to neutralize the issue before it damaged his party.
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Also last week, the House ethics committee:
_ Cleared Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who died Feb. 8, and six other members of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee of charges that they'd taken campaign money in exchange for legislative favors. The committee reviewed reports that the members had influenced earmarks — funding for special projects — for clients of the one-time lobbying firm PMA Group. The ethics committee said the lawmakers were more interested in the local impact of the projects than in campaign money.
_ Issued a "public admonishment" to Dawn Kelly Mobley, former counsel to the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, who was then the chairwoman of the ethics panel. It found that Mobley had worked in 2007 to skirt House travel restrictions in order to smooth the way for Rangel and other Congressional Black Caucus members to take corporate-paid trips to the Caribbean.
"The ethics committee is operating as before, which is nonfunctioning," said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. "Representative Charlie Rangel was pushed out, not that Pelosi wasn't supporting him. Rangel was crowding out the news, which is what they (Democrats) don't want in an election year."
Pelosi proclaimed Thursday that the House has come "a long way" in dealing with ethics problems. She pointed to Rangel's decision to step down as an example.
"Some of the issues that you reference in terms of the issues that transpired in the last few days, they are behind us. They are behind us," she said. "We have a new ... acting chair of the Ways and Means Committee. That's a very big change."
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., became the acting chairman Thursday as Democrats bypassed Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who'd been next in line but was dogged by a long history of controversial behavior.
Pelosi also said that until Wednesday, she didn't know about the latest ethics claim against a House Democrat, a nearly month-old allegation that freshman Rep. Eric Massa of New York had sexually harassed an aide.
Massa, 50, announced his retirement from Congress earlier this week, saying that he's suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Massa denied the harassment allegation. The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — the official name of the ethics committee — is looking into the matter.
Pelosi maintained that she's fulfilling the House Democrats' 2006 pledge to change the ethical climate in Washington. She cited the 2007 establishment of the Independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which examines complaints before sending them to the ethics committee, as one of her accomplishments.
"I established something unprecedented, an outside group to receive complaints and, if they saw fit, to convey them to the ethics committee," she said. "We have a functioning ethics committee, which is independent, bipartisan and now functioning."
Watchdog groups say, however, that the power of the Independent Office of Congressional Ethics — whose board includes former George W. Bush administration CIA Director Porter Goss and former Clinton White House Counsel Abner Mikva — is limited because it doesn't have subpoena power and the ethics committee isn't required to follow its findings.
"The big part of the problem in Congress is that it is loath to police itself, even with the OCE, which has done a good job," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a watchdog group. "Without self-policing, you're going to continue to have problems, regardless of who is speaker. Members don't want to police themselves; they don't want to tell on each other. Congress is like a club.
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