When campaigning in 2006, Nancy Pelosi said that a vote for Democratic control of Congress would bring the “most ethical Congress ever.” Now that one of their leadership has been caught violating ethics rules about accepting travel from lobbyists — precisely the kind of scandal Pelosi exploited in 2006 in the Jack Abramoff debacle — what does she plan to do about it? Er … nothing:
The House ethics committee decision to admonish Rangel for taking two corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean has turned up the heat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee chairman — with even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that Rangel’s actions don’t pass the “smell test.”
Several House Democrats have now joined Republicans in calling for Rangel to lose his gavel, and The New York Times has chimed in, saying the “arrogance” Rangel showed in the wake of Thursday’s ethics committee ruling provides “one more reason” for Pelosi to “stop protecting him and relieve him of his crucial role as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.”
In an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” Pelosi acknowledged that “what Mr. Rangel has been admonished for is not good.”
But the speaker also said that Rangel’s participation in the corporate-sponsored trips wasn’t something that had “jeopardized our country in any way,” and she made it clear that she has no intention of taking away Rangel’s chairmanship unless and until the ethics committee determines that he’s guilty of a number of ethics violations it’s currently investigating.
“Well, let’s … why don’t we just give him a chance to hear what the independent, bipartisan [ethics committee says] — they work very hard to reach their conclusions, and we … obviously, there’s more to come here,” Pelosi said.
That’s an interesting standard. Did Abramoff’s corruption “jeopardize the country”? Abramoff represented Indian interests (and his reach extended to several Democrats, including Harry Reid). Yet Pelosi was among the loudest calling for resignations and prosecutions, and effectively used the scandals in her “culture of corruption” campaign in 2006.
Furthermore, while the ethics committee still does have more work to do with Rangel, it doesn’t mean that Pelosi can’t address the finding they’ve already reached. Rangel chairs Ways and Means, the House committee that sets tax policy — a particularly juicy target for lobbyists, on par with Appropriations. If lobbyists have wooed Rangel with illicit favors, then anyone taking a serious position on ending corruption would demand his resignation from the committee, or strip him of the position without it. The fact that the House Ethics Committee has concluded that Rangel acted unethically by taking favors from lobbyists, according to rules Democrats themselves set, means that he is no longer suited for a position of trust in Congress.
Of course, Pelosi can’t tell the truth about why she won’t act, which is that she can’t afford to alienate the Congressional Black Caucus and expect to survive in her own leadership position, which is already precarious enough. The CBC has closed ranks around Rangel already, much as they did with now-convicted former Congressman William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson when confronted with evidence of his corruption. Pelosi therefore has to create thresholds of tolerable corruption in order to rationalize her inaction and hypocrisy.
If the standard for excising corrupt politicians is “jeopardiz[ing] the country,” then Pelosi proposes to transform Congress into a marketplace of explicit sale of influence only bounded by the definition of treason. That may be what she had in mind when she campaigned on the “culture of corruption” platform, but it’s the polar opposite of what voters believed she meant.
Update: Even the New York Times’ editorial board gets this one right.