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Democrats’ Ethics Message Carries Some Risk

Long before House Democrats decided to wage a campaign against Republican corruption, they considered the likelihood that some of their own Members could get caught up in the web of allegations and be taken down for their own ethical missteps.

Democrats pressed ahead anyway, believing that majority Republicans had abused too much power and committed too many unethical, and maybe even illegal, acts at the highest levels of power for the party to stay silent.

Democrats felt then, and say now, that even if some in the minority are having to grapple with their own ethical problems, the public will hold the party in charge accountable for the way government is run.

“This country shouldn’t be for sale,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the Rules Committee. “What’s happening now goes beyond a mistake that an individual Member may make in their personal or professional life.”

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said it is the Republicans who have watched the indictment of their one-time Majority Leader, and who pushed the K Street Project to ensure that lobbyists represent one party, their own. And, he said, it is the Republicans who continue to ignore qualifications by awarding contracts and giving appointments to their friends.

“Republicans are the face, the image of this culture of corruption,” Emanuel said.

Still, at least one Democratic Member is under federal investigation, several have been accused of improper and possibly illegal activity, one is facing a House ethics probe and a former Democratic lawmaker is headed to prison after illegally diverting taxpayer funds.

In the last case, one-time Rep. Frank Ballance (D-N.C.) was recently sentenced to four years in prison for funneling public money to his family and law firm through a foundation he helped found. Ballance resigned his House seat last May, citing health problems, before even finishing one full term.

In the meantime, Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) has been the recent subject of a federal probe over his dealings with a Virginia-based high-tech company. The probe included an FBI sting operation and has involved searches of his home, office and vehicle.

Also, questions have arisen in recent months about past ethical practices of Democratic Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), Jim McDermott (Wash.), John Murtha (Pa.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.).

In McDermott’s case, the House ethics committee has established an investigative subcommittee to look into the Washington lawmaker’s role in distributing an illegally taped phone call between House GOP leaders in in 1997. Currently, McDermott is the only Member for whom an ethics subcommittee has been authorized.

In the meantime, Conyers, Waters and Murtha have each faced questions from media and watchdog groups for allegedly using their positions and Congressional offices to steer business to family members.

Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Democrats “clearly have their own problems” — even as high as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was once cited for setting up an illegal political action committee.

“I’ve said from the time this thing started, that that’s going to be a big hurdle for them to overcome,” Forti said.

“You can’t run a national campaign on an issue when their own house is dirty,” he added.

But Democrats say questions about a few of their own are to be expected, given that they are taking on a powerful Republican political machine that is not shy about going on the offensive. And, Democrats say, it should be no surprise that as the public and media hone in on ethical problems within government, some Democrats will inevitably come under the microscope as well.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged the possibility that some Democrats could get caught up in what he calls “an avalanche” of corruption cases. But Hoyer said the problem is clearly not a Democratic one.

“I think the focus is on the Republicans who are in power,” he said. “We are not in power. They are in power, and there are abuses of power here. That’s what is in question.”

Democrats argue that Republicans have much more to wrestle with than they do, both politically and individually. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was recently indicted for improper campaign activities, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is under investigation for questionably timed stock sales, and President Bush’s senior adviser, Karl Rove, is facing possible indictment for his connection to the leak of the name of a CIA operative.

At the same time, Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) is under federal investigation for his ties to a defense contractor. Cunningham has announced his retirement after this Congress.

Questions have also arisen about other Republican Members who had dealings with former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, is facing allegations of using his position to help Abramoff advance his lobbying agenda in exchange for political favors.

“Frankly, if we’re keeping score on both sides, we’re leading big time in the fourth quarter,” one high-level Democratic aide said. “We always knew there might be issues on our side. That’s what comes with the territory.”

Another senior Democratic staffer said that a few rank-and-file Democratic Members with ethics questions do not measure up to scale of problems currently plaguing the Republicans on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Ultimately, they have a lot more that they have to answer for,” the aide said. “We have nothing on the scale that they have to worry about. If there is collateral damage, so be it. The way they run this place is just not right, and we have an obligation to point that out.”

Democrats have made Republican “corruption and cronyism” a cornerstone of the message. Notably, it was similar to the one used by the GOP against the entrenched Democratic majority in 1994, when Republicans seized control of the House.

Forti said that even if the public is now unhappy with its government, Americans are not translating that general discontent and concern to the individual Member level. For that reason, he said, Democrats will have little chance at overtaking the House based on the message that the Republicans have run an unethical Congress.

“What the numbers tell you is people don’t care,” he said. “While they may believe you that Congress is corrupt, they do not think their particular Member is corrupt. Just because somebody thinks Republicans are dirty, doesn’t mean they think a particular Member is also dirty.”

But the minority party insists that the line of attack on ethics is resonating.

One well-placed Democratic aide said that his party has successfully made the argument to the public that it is “unacceptable” for Congress to be run by people who “take advantage of the system and bend the rules” to get what they want.

“And the American people agree,” this staffer said. “All you have to do is look at the front pages. It’s all about Republican corruption.”