Turning the Tables on Ethics

  • Share
  • Read Later
You may have missed it, but that dull, thudding sound in the political background over the weekend was Republicans pummeling Democrats on, of all things, corruption.That's because last Friday, the top-ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee, West Virginia's Alan Mollohan, was forced to step down temporarily from that post over charges of — what else? — unethical behavior. And Republicans didn't miss this golden opportunity to pile on.

“Only surpassed by Howard Dean, this was the biggest gift we’ve gotten,” said David Winston, a Republican strategist. "This puts the Democratic leadership on notice that they’re throwing stones in a glass house,” said Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority leader John Boehner. “This is the pinnacle,” Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, rejoiced.

The GOP has reason to be happy. Through April, Mollohan faced mounting allegations in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times that he had routed as much as $250 million of federal money to nonprofits he set up, employees and contractors of which in turn funneled money to his campaigns. He had also been accused of underreporting real estate holdings on his personal financial disclosure forms. Mollohan has denied wrongdoing.

Losing a leader to scandal is never good, but Mollohan’s fall undermines a key pillar of the Democratic efforts to take back the House and Senate in November. Democrats have invested time and money pushing the idea of what they call the "Republican culture of corruption" as exemplified by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the fall of former House Majority Leader Tom Delay. “[Ethics] had been an important strategic element of the campaign,” says Winston, and with Mollohan’s troubles, “It just got incredibly difficult for them to play that card."

Democrats insist that Mollohan's fall does not neutralize their corruption attacks against the GOP. “That’s wishful thinking on their part,” says Brendan Daly, the spokesman for House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi. Counterattacking, Pelosi has criticized a watered-down lobbying reform bill House Republicans introduced this week that only temporarily bans private funding of House member travel and allows private interest groups to pay for meals and flights on corporate jets. She's also linking two hot-button issues to corruption: gas prices and prescription drugs. “People know that Republicans are in charge in Washington and the culture of corruption is costing them whether it’s at the gas pump or in the prescription drug bill,” Daly says.

But Democrats have missed an opportunity to make the point that they don’t tolerate corruption. During the House banking scandal in 1994, Newt Gingrich went after Republican check kiters aggressively in an attempt to regain credibility. This time around, the Democrats have chosen to defend Mollohan, rather than hang him out to dry. Pelosi says she has the "highest regard" for Mollohan. And even though party leaders had to push him out quietly behind the scenes, they're supporting the charade that he stepped down on his own.

No matter how the Dems try to spin it, Mollohan's fall may have come just in time for Republicans. Congress is bracing for the possibility of another round of Abramoff-related news. Bob Ney, Republican of Ohio and his former Chief of Staff Neil Volz both signed waivers last fall extending for six months the statute of limitations on any potential crimes relating to Abramoff; that deadline comes this weekend, and there is much speculation among those who follow the corruption scandal that the first Abramoff-related indictment of a sitting Congressman may be around the corner. And everyone is holding their breath to see if Tom DeLay's former Chief of Staff, Ed Buckham, is indicted — which could ultimately bring another two or three Republican congressmen into the mix.

If that happens, the GOP has a ready-made answer, and his name is Alan Mollohan. “Everytime they bring [ethics] up they're going to face it,” says Winston. So even if you didn't catch his name the first time around, you're likely to hear the story of Alan Mollohan's dismal exit from the House ethics committee many more times in the coming months.