U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) was recently spotlighted by a Congressional ethics panel. A plea bargain has apparently mollified the committee.
Now there are murmurings that U.S. Rep Maxine Waters (D-CA) may be the next one spotlighted by a Congressional ethics panel.
Some media pundits have surmised that these news headlines may be damaging the Democrat brand at an inopportune time–as midterm elections loom ahead.
My take on it? It’s not going to hurt Rangel and Waters in their own districts, unlike former Democrat U.S. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana who was replaced by Republican Joseph Cao. The Democrat brand is being hurt by their domestic policy agenda. The alleged unethical actions of one, or two, or three, or four, or five, or so members of their caucus, at the end of the day, has little to do with how the Democrat brand is perceived in the current political and economic environment. The public is clearly distracted by unemployment, home foreclosures, and other perils that hit closer to home. Few are paying attention to ethics investigations at this point (unless the tycoons of Wall Street, the Fed, and former and current officials of the U.S. Department of Treasury were being investigated–then we’d be all ears because of our collective outrage against the bailouts).
If a Congressional Democrat had to pick a time to be spotlighted by the ethics panel, this is a good time to do it. The public distraction is only one factor in the equation. The other important factor is that it seems likely that the Democrats won’t maintain their House majority, anyway. If you were in their shoes, would you want an ethics panel chaired by fellow Democrats now? Or Republicans after they take office in January? If you wanted to strike a deal, settle a case by plea bargain, would you rather cut the deal with Democrats chairing the panel or Republicans? If you were disciplined as a result of ethics hearings, would you rather have the penalties meted out by Democrats or Republicans?
As a Republican observer, I think it’s a win-win for Democrats who step forward for scrutiny now rather than later. If you believe you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got to think the panel will be more fair to you now rather than later. If you have done something wrong, it’s not likely to be remembered, not likely to cost much political clout, and not likely to be heavily penalized in the event of a sour outcome to the hearings.
If a targeted Democrat were to try to dodge an inquiry now, but couldn’t prevent it from resurfacing later, even if the Republicans chairing the panel were quite fair in applying the rules, at the very least there will be acrimony. Partisan rancor would be the source of that acrimony. The Democrats would circle their wagons and lodge complaints of Republican witch-hunting. By that time, though, the public might not be so distracted. They might pay attention, and, despite the charges of witch-hunting, the public might not let the matter go by the wayside until all the dirty laundry has been aired before an ethics panel. If, after that airing, the ethics probe was justified because of findings of wrongdoing, then it wouldn’t have turned out to be a witch-hunt after all, and the Democrat caucus that circled their wagons around you would be tarnished with the perception that they’d attempted a cover-up. What would happen to the Democrat brand then, when the party is already down and needs to pick itself back up? How sure are you that the hearings chaired by the other party will be fair? How sure are you that a deal can be cut to settle the case? How sure are you that the penalties won’t be harsh? If you stayed in office this time around, will the public catch up to you the next time, as happened in Rep. Jefferson’s case? If so, would the caucus shrink further, by your absence from it, rather than rebound during the next election cycle? If the panel exonerated you, and it did appear that the Republicans engaged in a witch-hunt, is that going to repair the public trust in Congress that is now in tatters (recent polls: Congressional approval rating of 11%) because of the public perception of hyperpartisanship and political posturing? It’s a lose-lose.
If you are a Congressional Democrat with a target on your back, and an ethics probe lies in your future, then your next press conference referencing a potential probe should be “Bring it on!” Then, under your breath, so no one else hears, whisper to investigators, “And hurry up about it!”