"Drain the swamp we did, because this was a terrible place,"--Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
It's a nice talking point, but with two senior members of Congress facing serious ethics charges in the coming weeks this seems a little premature. To be sure, we've come a long way from the days of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, but now is not the time to give up the fight, or declare mission accomplished.
Fair or not, we live in a time where the terms "crook" and "politician" have become synonymous in the minds of many. It's a sad commentary, but Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Boehner should consider this a challenge, and take steps to improve Congress's image. The upcoming ethics trials of Congressman Rangel and Congresswoman Waters suggest that the House is finally taking ethics seriously, but it is imperative for leaders of both parties to continue to hold members accountable.
If Rep. Rangel and Rep. Waters really do have ethics hearings this fall, it will mark the first time in years that any member of Congress has had his or her feet held to the fire in such a public manner. Clearly though, these are not the only two members to abuse their offices in recent times. While Mr. DeLay did resign in disgrace in 2006, it has actually been more than eight years since the United States Congress expelled a member. In fact, the House Ethics Committee has sat out entirely during most of the recent ethics scandals. The committee never reviewed the conduct of Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-CA), Bob Ney (R-OH), or William Jefferson (D-LA), all of whom ultimately were convicted of crimes for abusing their offices. Most members of Congress, however, whose conduct violates House rules but not criminal law, incur few if any consequences for their misdeeds.
Even some members who lost their seats over ethics issues only four years ago have reappeared on the political horizon. Richard Pombo (R-CA) is running for a different House seat than the one he lost in the 2006 election. Although never convicted of corruption, Rep. Pombo's behavior was nonetheless deplorable. He urged the Interior Department to suspend rules opposed by the wind power industry, which just so happened to have paid Pombo's parents hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties. He used taxpayer funds to finance a family vacation through our national parks, and he accepted more than $35,000 from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. These and other ethical lapses earned Pombo a place on CREW's 2006 list of the 20 most corrupt members of Congress and persuaded voters to oust him.
Similarly, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), is now challenging Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the Republican Senate primary. Mr. Hayworth, too, was tarred by the Abramoff scandal, receiving more than $100,000 in Abramoff-related donations and repeatedly using Mr. Abramoff's skyboxes to hold fundraisers without reporting the costs to the Federal Election Commission. In addition, Mr. Hayworth's wife served as the sole employee of his PAC and he paid her over 25% of money taken in, while also paying someone else for bookkeeping and fundraising.
For the past five years, CREW has released a list of the Most Corrupt Members of Congress. A review of last year's list of 15 members - 8 Democrats and 7 Republicans - demonstrates that ethical lapses may be the only bipartisan territory in Washington these days. Disappointingly, many of the members who have engaged in misconduct have never been held accountable for their appalling actions. Most have never received so much as a slap on the wrist by the ethics committees and many remain in Congress though voters have been wise enough to throw some of the worst offenders out.
Simply put, Americans deserve better. We deserve leaders who act with honesty and integrity. It is eminently reasonable for us to expect Congress to police itself and appropriately sanction those who do not meet the high ethical standards we are right to demand. Holding Reps. Rangel and Waters responsible for their misconduct is a good start, but considering it is Congress we are talking about, there is sure to be another ethics scandal brewing on the horizon.