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Ethics Probe Could Feel to Voters Like 1992 House Banking Scandal

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News today of House ethics investigators looking into dozens of members and staffers is a huge news bomb that will effect everything that happens between now and the 2010 election. This goes to the heart of the trust between Americans and their elected officials, and how it plays out will be of paramount importance.

When the House banking scandal broke in early 1992, I remember the feeling in Washington. As it became known that members of the House of Representatives were being allowed to overdraw funds in their House checking accounts without penalty, the "check-kiting" allegations infuriated voters.

After an investigation that dominated the news and covered nearly all members of Congress, only 22 were implicated in the final result.

The scandal hit those 22 members hardest, but tarnished all of Washington. Then, like now, the economy was coming out of recession. Then, like now, the housing market and job losses were hurting many Americans.

The next mid-term election was 1994, and Republican Minority Whip Newt Gingrich used the scandal as part of a strategy to gain a Republican majority in the House. In part, he could do that because a higher number of those implicated were Democrats than Republicans (although Gingrich himself overdrew funds.)

The news of the current ethics probe is fresh and more will come out. But at first read, it feels like one of those stories that could break through the usual noise and reach the minds of voters. It may not have an electoral outcome that is measurable in 2010, or it may. What is important is that it appears that this unintended transparency has resulted in greater knowledge to the public. The story may have been leaked or mistakenly revealed. The bottom line is that this story sheds the kind of light voters want. It is not a partisan issue, but a transparency issue. Voters will pay attention because they genuinely want to know if they can trust Washington. They will also likely reflect on the idea that this came to light by mistake, and wonder how much voters are kept in the dark about other things they would like to know.