Behind the scenes and in front of the cameras, Democrats are in full spin mode as they try to minimize the political damage from the spectacle of two potential House ethics trials before the midterm elections.
The latest bombshell landed Monday afternoon, when the House ethics committee announced that Rep. Maxine Waters would face an ethics trial on an unspecified date after an investigative panel found substantial reason to believe the California Democrat violated House rules or other laws. The ethics committee has been exploring Waters’ role in securing $12 million in federal bailout funds in 2009 for OneUnited Bank, a company in which her husband owned stock. He also sat on the bank’s board of directors from 2004 to 2008.
The announcement came days after another ethics subcommittee charged Rep. Charlie Rangel with 13 counts of wrongdoing, including allegations that the New York Democrat misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, accepted a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a Dominican Republic villa and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms.
House Democratic leaders have initiated a multipronged effort to contain the damage that the ethics charges could wreak during the six-week recess that began Friday.
That approach centers on distancing themselves and their vulnerable incumbents from Rangel and Waters while touting the party’s record on overhauling the ethics process since winning control of the House in 2006. They also are trying to steer the conversation back to jobs and the economy, topics they’ve pinned their election-year strategy on.
“It’s obviously not how we would like to be spending our fall,” a Democratic leadership aide acknowledged. But the aide added that “the vast majority of voters are going to determine who they want in Congress based off of their views on the economy and whether or not they believe that we’re moving in the right direction. … But certainly having what will be — I’m sure — a circus going on related to one, maybe two ethics trials, that won’t be helpful.”
As part of their effort to insulate Democrats from Rangel’s and Waters’ ethics woes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office has compiled a memo titled “The New Direction Congress: A Record of Ethics, Accountability and Transparency Reform” that details efforts to strengthen the ethics system.
The memo, which the Californian’s office has been sharing with reporters since it was distributed to all Members’ offices July 23, is part of what one House Democratic aide described Monday as a “very aggressive push” to educate the press about Democrats’ record on ethics.
Democratic leaders also have been strategic in their public comments on the matter. Pelosi said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that Democrats “have to uphold a high ethical standard, and none of our personalities is more important than that.”
Pelosi downplayed the potential political repercussions when she told reporters at her weekly press conference on Thursday that “the chips will have to fall where they may politically” and insisted that she had succeeded in her pledge to “drain the swamp” of a “criminal syndicate” that had operated “out of the Republican leader’s office” when the GOP controlled the chamber.
President Barack Obama appeared to suggest in an interview that aired Sunday that Rangel should resign when he said he hoped Rangel would “end his career with dignity.”
One Democratic leadership aide said that when back in their districts, Democrats “shouldn’t feel any pressure to defend any Member who’s under an ethical cloud.”
Several Democratic leadership aides characterized the ethics story as one that would get little traction beyond the Beltway.
“People back home are focused on the economy and jobs,” one aide said. “Our Members are focused on that. If it does come up, they have a record they can point to.”
Republicans want to leverage the charges to bolster their bid to win control of the House in November. They are emboldened in their efforts by the fact that Democrats gained huge political mileage in 2006 out of what they described as a “culture of corruption” in the House that facilitated ethics scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and — just weeks before voters went to the polls — Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).
Ron Bonjean, a former aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), warned that the Democrats’ strategy of distancing themselves from the ethics charges and touting their efforts to overhaul the ethics process could backfire.
“While they put in place extra ethics laws, the Democrats and their party chose not to follow the rules,” Bonjean said. He noted that Rangel’s former position as Ways and Means chairman was a blow for Democrats since Rangel is accused of tax-related violations. “This is a huge problem for them because the Democrats are in power and running the show,” he said.
Republicans are also doing their best to link Democratic candidates to Rangel, in part by calling out those who have accepted and failed to return campaign cash from the New York Democrat.
American Crossroads, a conservative political action committee dedicated to helping Republicans gain seats in November, sent out a list Monday of Democratic Congressional candidates that had received donations from Rangel or Waters.
Top House Democrats are holding out hope that Rangel and Waters will negotiate settlements that could obviate the need for a public and possibly politically costly trial.
Appearing on MSNBC on Monday, Majority Whip James Clyburn said he had discussed the ethics charges with Rangel, and that Rangel had “made it very clear … that he was willing to stipulate to all of the sworn testimony … regarding these 13 allegations.”
“Once the stipulation is made like that, then the groundwork is there for a resolution to be had short of any kind of a trial, and so I would hope that we can get this done,” the South Carolina Democrat said.
Rangel, who on Sunday denied through his lawyers that he is impeding ongoing attempts to negotiate a settlement, has maintained that he did nothing wrong intentionally. Waters denied any wrongdoing and vowed Monday to fight the charges.
And another potential land mine is still out there for Democrats: an ongoing ethics committee probe looking into whether Congressional officials mishandled claims that former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) harassed male members of his staff before he resigned in March.
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.