If New Jersey Representative Bob Menendez isn't the cause of the House Democrats' problems, he's certainly a glaring symptom. According to a recent New York Times report, Menendez, the House's third-ranking Democrat, has steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in lucrative consulting contracts to a former aide. Not surprisingly, the relationship has piqued the interest of Republicans. As Bob Novak reported this week, Republicans see an ethically compromised Menendez as a deterrent to future attacks on ethically challenged and embattled Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
One would think the risk of losing Menendez in an ethics fight would be a small price to pay for toppling DeLay. But, if recent history is any indication, Democrats will beg off. The last six months' worth of revelations about DeLay's questionable foreign travels and his association with disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff have provided Democrats with their best opportunity in years to wound the congressional GOP. And yet, despite some occasional progress--as when Democrats forced the GOP leadership to reverse its earlier softening of House ethics rules--House Democrats have been tentative at best. They have refused pleas by good-government groups to keep pressing for an outside counsel to investigate DeLay (as is their right). They have run the occasional negative ad but haven't aggressively filed ethics complaints against top Republicans, such as Ohio Representative Bob Ney, who did favors for Abramoff in exchange for his own exotic travel, and Pennsylvania Representative Curt Weldon, whose daughter's lobbying activities have attracted scrutiny. And, despite several months' worth of additional revelations, Democrats have yet to file a second ethics complaint against DeLay.
Just about every one of these omissions can be attributed to Republican promises to retaliate. For example, just when Democrats stood poised to make an issue out of Abramoff-funded junkets this spring, Republican campaign committee spokesman Carl Forti told the Times, "Democrats have just as much liability on all this as Republicans.'' And, often, the GOP has promised to hit Democrats where it hurts most: their leadership. Prior to Menendez, Republicans targeted Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi--whose political operation paid a fine in 2003 for campaign-finance infractions. "To the extent that she's violated federal law, she's brought into question the integrity of the House," Florida Representative Tom Feeney announced to The Hill in December.
But, while it's easy to see why high-ranking Democrats like Pelosi and Menendez would hold their fire, it's not clear why rank-and-file Democrats would go along. House rules give the minority party virtually no power--except over ethics matters. Which means that pretty much the only way for Democrats to regain the majority is through the kind of ruthless assault on corruption that invariably endangers congressmen on both sides of the aisle. As The New Republic's Michael Crowley has noted ("Learning from Newt," January 24), Newt Gingrich grasped this logic intuitively when he fanned the flames of the House banking scandal in the early '90s. Gingrich believed that, while seizing on ethics presented real risks--Gingrich himself was implicated, albeit on a relatively small scale--a scandal that touched almost everyone in Congress would invariably hurt Democrats more, since they controlled the House. Conversely, a refusal to risk collateral damage might have saved some longtime GOP incumbents but done nothing to return the party to power.
Today Democrats find themselves in a similar position: The same status quo that guarantees Pelosi and Menendez their leadership positions effectively consigns House Democrats to minority status. In their defense, some Democrats have rejected this dubious bargain. Much of the credit for DeLay's current political trouble goes to a former Democratic representative named Chris Bell, who last year filed the complaint that led to DeLay's official admonishment. House Democratic campaign Chairman Rahm Emanuel has reportedly told colleagues he plans "to go after every ethically challenged Republican out there." But, far more often, rank-and-file Democrats have confused the party's interests with the interests of its leaders, a confusion that Republicans have mercilessly exploited.
At the height of the furor over DeLay this spring, an anonymous Republican aide told Roll Call that, "in the end, we're the most affected by [the ethical cloud over Congress]. ... We are in the majority, and we have a hell of a lot more to lose than they do." How many more years in the minority will it take before Democrats reach the same conclusion?
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