Charlie Cook: Ethics Will Be Big Issue in 2010 House Races

Political analyst Charlie Cook says that the scandals enveloping Reps. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and John Murtha (D-PA) threaten to increase losses for their party in next year’s election. He writes:

As House Democrats try to avert political disaster by limiting their 2010 losses to about 16 seats, the norm for post-World War II presidents’ first midterm elections, dealing with their members’ ethics problems may be one of their toughest tasks.

The task is tough because of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance to move against either one, notwithstanding her promise to “drain the swamp” of Congressional corruption and to  “create the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history.”

Regarding Rangel, Cook notes:

Rangel’s leadership role is a Democratic headache that’s apparently not going away, given the outrage that members of the influential Congressional Black Caucus expressed over early efforts to strip one of their own, William Jefferson, of his Ways and Means seat after $90,000 was found in his freezer. Imagine the Black Caucus’s reaction if Pelosi moved against Rangel.

Pelosi’s dilemma with Murtha is even worse:

Because Murtha was one of Pelosi’s most important supporters as she climbed the leadership ladder, she finds it difficult to turn her back on him. Yet allowing Murtha to keep his subcommittee chairmanship jeopardizes the seats of other Democrats and possibly her speakership.

Cook suggests the best way out of this mess for House Democrats is to convince Rangel and Murtha not to seek re-election. He also asserts that the two might be “less appetizing” targets for prosecutors if they leave Congress voluntarily.

Prosecutors have been moving up the food chain toward Murtha by indicting his cronies. It is not a fast or simple process. Murtha’s “pay to play” empire has been built over decades, costing taxpayers billions. It is taking investigators years to unravel it. Allowing Murtha to simply walk away because they are getting close would be outrageous.

As for Rangel, we filed a Complaint with the IRS and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia in September 2008, shortly after we exposed his failure to pay taxes on rental income from his Dominican Republic “villa.” We don’t know if a criminal investigation is underway. One certainly should be. Rangel himself asked the House Ethics Committee for an investigation, no doubt anticipating a whitewash.

While Rangel should give up his Ways and Means chairmanship, and leave Congress, it would be similarly outrageous if Rangel can simply leave behind circumstances that would leave any other citizens facing pursuit by the IRS, and likely, criminal charges.

Of course, Cook is simply making observations about political realities, not rendering a moral judgment. I am not sure either Rangel or Murtha will go willingly, no matter how much pressure is put on them.

Rangel is 79 and has been in Congress since 1971. Murtha is close behind at 77, having been first elected in 1974. If either wanted to just retire and collect their fat Congressional pensions, they would have already done so. Both exhibit a pride and stubbornness born of decades of supplication by those who benefit by their positions of influence. It is the only thing they know.

And incredibly, both see themselves as “victims” of unfair attacks. Rangel, in particular, is positively indignant that anyone would be critical of his tax evasion or the fact he failed to report hundreds of thousands in income and assets on his financial disclosure forms.

That is why ethics should be a central issue of the Congressional elections next year. When the House Speaker is unwilling or unable to act against corrupt and powerful committee chairmen who are so divorced from present political reality, it invites the retribution of voters.

As Cook points out:

Independent voters, who swung toward Democrats by an 18-point margin in 2006 and cost Republicans their majority, are particularly sensitive to ethics charges. They will be watching to see whether Democrats clean their own House.


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Rangel Says Ethics Committee Has Not Asked About His Finances

Flaherty: Rangel Dirty Even After Coming Clean (video: CNN)

Rangel Scandal Timeline

NLPC Alleges Rangel Hid More Income in Complaint to House Ethics Committee

Is Murtha Trying to Distace Himself From Magliocchetti?

Murtha Ally Indcited in Kickback Scheme

Caribbean Junket Probe Headed by Black Caucus Member Shows Pelosi’s ‘Mockery’ of Ethics Process

Congressional Black Caucus Upset About NLPC-Triggered Probe of Caribbean Junket

House Ethics Committee Asks NLPC For Info on Rangel-Led, Citigroup-Funded Caribbean Junket

Boehm Says Prosecutors Will ‘Get to Murtha’