The question was never whether Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson would be indicted but when. Now that the inevitable has happened and the scandal tainted Congressman has been hit with a 16-count bribery indictment that could land him in jail for decades where does that leave the promise House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi made last year to "drain the swamp." By that she meant that she and House Democrats would cleanse the House of the rampant corruption, cronyism and favoritism that have come to be its trademark.
Jefferson, of course, was the lightening rod for Pelosi's political grandstanding on ethics reform. But he was a soft mark. There was the mountain of federal documents, an incriminating videotape, plea bargains by aides and a business associate, an FBI raid on his office, a prior ethics complaint against him by a congressional watchdog group, and his sordid history of deal making. The luckless Jefferson also fell victim to bad political timing. With the November 2006 mid term elections then only a few months away, Democrats badly need a hot button issue to tap public fury at a Wild West, deal-making Congress where anything and everybody is for sale.
The legal and political tumble of one politically brittle Congressman, though, hardly signals the dawning of a new day for ethics reform. In the months since Pelosi swore to clean the swamp the only tangible reform she can point to is a tougher restriction on gift giving. But the big-ticket reforms such as the creation of an independent panel to investigate ethics violations has withered on the vine. The House has had ample chance to cleanse its stable before Pelosi dumped Jefferson from the House Ways and Means Committee last year. And even more chance to nail down the reforms during the months that Jefferson twisted and squirmed in the wind waiting for the legal hammer to fall.
Each time it deliberately fumbled the ball. In 2005, the House shoved through a rule that if the ethics panel chair, either the ranking Republican or Democrat fail to approve an ethics complaint for investigation within 45 days, it was dead. In other words, no matter how blatant a house member's action, that meant no probe, no violation, and no sanctions. Democrats blasted the rule change as a shabby and very transparent cover to shield Texas Republican Tom De Lay from an ethics probe, or worse.
It was. Yet, the ethics panel took the hint. It reduced its staff, and barred outside groups from filing ethics complaints against House members. Under the new rule, a complaint from the outside had to be certified by a House member. The chance of that happening is virtually nil. That slammed the door on credible groups that have brought documented complaints of abuse. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, for instance, called for an ethics probe of Jefferson a month before Pelosi made the demand. The citizen's group complaint almost certainly spurred her to act.
The rule changes had bipartisan benefit. They assured that complaints against wayward Democrats could also die a quiet death. In 2005, a congressional watchdog groups publicly branded 13 House members as the most corrupt. The unsavory roster included Democrats and Republicans. Jefferson was one of those named.
While Republicans are deservedly lambasted for watering down ethics reform, Democrats have given no public indication that they are in a mood to storm the barricades to wage war publicly against the rule changes. In fact, when Democrats proposed a tepid package of measures that would put clamps on some lobbyist spending, and broaden the category of ethics offenses, they made no effort to get Republicans to endorse the reforms. Whether this was a case of political expediency, partisan politics, or Democrats just thought it was pointless to try to get Republicans to sign on to the reforms, it was still the perfect time to publicly call Republicans on the carpet for obstructing ethics reform.
Jefferson and DeLay's indictments, Randy Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney's jailings, and top gun lobbyist Jack Abramoff's murky dealings, cast on ugly glare on Congressional corruption. In the presidential election battles, Democrats again almost certainly will do everything they can to pin the tag of corruption on Republicans, all the while hoping that the sordid Jefferson affair quickly slips off the public radarscope. But words and media genic posturing can't substitute for an ethics reform law with real bite, and slapping firm penalties on the most outrageous House members that are on the take.
Pelosi called the Jefferson indictment an unacceptable abuse of power. It is, and though he's one of the more blatant House offenders, he's hardly the only offender. In other words, Nancy, the swamp of House wheeling and dealing with impunity still spills over.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.
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