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Ethical Disparity

The swift, summary judgment inflicted on Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) for sexual misbehavior raises anew the question — just what are the standards that House and Senate Democrats and Republicans should apply in cases of ethical transgression?

Within hours of Roll Call’s reporting Aug. 27 that Craig had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct arising from his arrest at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for allegedly making suggestive advances to a male undercover policeman, his Republican colleagues began calling for his resignation from the Senate.

Within a day, while Craig was claiming he had entered the plea in error, Senate GOP leaders had called for the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the case. A day later, they pressured him to step down from his ranking member posts on various committees and subcommittees during the probe.

By the end of last week, demands for his resignation — and threats to cutoff party funds and back a challenger if he tried to seek re-election — were coming from the White House, the Republican National Committee, Senate GOP leaders and Idaho party officials. Craig obliged Saturday by announcing his intent to resign from the Senate on Sept. 30.

Yet the GOP applied a totally different standard when Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) acknowledged “a very serious sin in my past” after he was listed as a client of a D.C. prostitution ring. Essentially, the party averted its eyes and imposed no discipline.

It’s true: Vitter’s “sin” involved no criminal charges being filed. Yet what should we make of the disparity in the treatment of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) versus Reps. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and William Jefferson (D-La.) after FBI raids at their homes or offices in connection with financial corruption probes?

Party leaders forced Doolittle, Renzi and Jefferson to step down from key committee assignments, and the House GOP leadership has pressured Renzi and Doolittle not to run again — Renzi recently announced he won’t run — as a means of cleansing itself of the taint of corruption that led to the party losing its Congressional majorities in 2006.

But no action whatsoever has been taken against Stevens despite a July 30 raid by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service on his home in Alaska that was lavishly refurbished by an oil pipeline service firm, VECO, that benefited from Congressional earmarks secured by Stevens.

Meanwhile, in the House, no action has been taken against other Members known to be under federal investigation but whose property has not been raided. These include Republican Reps. Gary Miller (Calif.), Don Young (Alaska), Jerry Lewis (Calif.) and Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.)

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) decreed in November that “clear likelihood of serious transgressions will lead to suspension from important committee assignments” and “guilt will lead to immediate and severe consequences.” That’s a standard, but it’s vague and not codified in any way.

Democrats and Senate Republicans have no stated standard at all, until a lawmaker actually gets indicted. Members and the public shouldn’t have to guess what will happen to transgressors. And leaders should not be making it up as they go along.

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