This is a story about swamps and bathtubs.
Swamps are a lot larger than bathtubs. And the time it takes to drain a swamp is inversely connected to the speed at which a bathtub could overflow.
Which is precisely the enigma facing House Democrats amid the spate of ethics woes.
The challenge for Democrats is to defy physics and simultaneously drain a swamp before a bathtub fills up.
The odds are against them this August.The “Look What We’ve Accomplished, Please Take Note That We’re Working Hard” press conference is a standard Capitol Hill art form. Amid the pandemonium of the afternoon right before a big Congressional recess, the majority party usually summons harried reporters to a press conference or a bill enrollment ceremony to underscore their latest legislative achievements. These convocations serve as a launching pad for themes lawmakers hope to emphasize while Congress is out of town.
The end of September in even-numbered years used to be the most-critical time to propound such a narrative. But in recent years, the August recess has evolved into a critical period on the Congressional calendar. The ruckus last August over the Democrats’ health care reform effort epitomized the importance of seizing the message in a period that has the potential to be a news vacuum.
The House of Representatives rolled through a lengthy series of ten votes late Friday afternoon. Most of the votes pertained to legislation to protect whistleblowers involved in offshore drilling and a bill to tighten oil safety measures.
But the majority Democrats offered no signature, send-off press conference Friday afternoon.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered. And it’s doubtful few reporters could have attended anyway. Scribes couldn’t be bothered with a back-slapping, congratulatory newser. That’s because they were either staking out the House Ethics Committee or dogging embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) through the halls. And after all, the August narrative is already set for Democrats: ethics.
It started as a drip, drip, drip.
First there was Rep. Walt Minnick (D-ID). Then Betty Sutton (D-OH) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ). All said that Rangel should resign if it was proven he violated House rules.
Then a special House ethics panel convened Thursday to announce the 13 ethics charges leveled against Rangel.
And the dripping increased to a trickle.
Reps. John Yarmuth (D-KY), Bobby Bright (D-AL) and Mary Jo Kilroy (D-OH). Then Zack Space (D-OH). All said Rangel should go if the ethics violations are proven true. Reps. Michael Arcuri (D-NY), Debbie Halverson (D-IL) and John Adler (D-NJ) added their names to the list Saturday.
The faucet was flowing.
Many of these are freshman or second-term lawmakers from swing districts. It’s no surprise that these moderate and conservative Democrats want to distance themselves from the ethics woes of the Harlem liberal when they face competitive elections this fall.
If you close the drain in your bathtub and let the faucet drip all night, the tub will fill by morning. With no resolution to Rangel’s ethics transgressions, think of August as a pretty big bathtub. If the anti-Rangel sentiment shifts to a gusher, it won’t take the entire month for the tub to overflow.
So Rangel’s case appears headed to a big, public forum in September where he will defend himself against charges of ducking his taxes, abusing Congressional privileges and soliciting donations from firms that had business before the House Ways and Means Committee that he used to chair.
But it gets worse for Democrats.
While there was no Democratic, send-off press conference, news of another ethics maelstrom helped fill the message chasm Friday night.
Hours before, reporters huddled outside the Ethics Committee offices in the basement of the Capitol received the following declarative message:
“The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is convening on official business. There will be no further statements by the Committee today.”
The “adjudicatory subcommittee,” which is comprised of lawmakers charged with trying Rangel, met for hours in the Ethics Committee suite on Thursday and most of Friday. Most journalists presumed this statement meant there was no chance for Rangel to settle and that an ethics “trial” would forge ahead in September.
It did mean that. But long after everyone dashed home, the August message was suddenly flashed in neon lights above the Capitol dome. Again, without the benefit of a thematic press conference.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) was in hot water, too.
While Rangel’s investigation has gotten top billing, ethics investigators have also probed whether Waters used her position to get federal help for a bank her husband owned stock in. He also served on the board. The institution eventually received $12 million in bailout relief.
Many reporters were stunned that amid Friday’s flurry about Rangel, the Ethics Committee didn’t discretely announce its finding on Waters. A source familiar with Waters inquiry indicated that Waters was in trouble. But the ostensibly straightforward Ethics Committee declaration of “no further statements” also served to telegraph Waters next move. In other words, not only was Rangel unwilling to accept the punishment as meted out by the Ethics Committee (we learned Friday that investigators recommended a reprimand for Rangel), but neither was Waters.
So when Congress returns to action in September, Waters will face a public ethics hearing to defend herself as well.
This creates a rare, bizarre scenario for House Democrats: two public ethics trials for two veteran members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Which means the August message void for Democrats will center not on one but two ethics trials. And expect race to emerge as an issue here. Both ethics cases involve CBC members. Meantime, the press is still toying with racism allegations involving some supporters of the tea party . And that’s to say nothing about the aftermath of the Shirley Sherrod-Andrew Breitbart debacle.
“Thank you for being the bearer of bad news,” sneered one House Democrat facing a challenging re-election when I told him of the Waters issue.
“This is like the gift that keeps on giving,” moaned a House Democratic aide when wondering aloud why Rangel wouldn’t accept his punishment and avoid an ethics trial. “If he settled, we could just put this behind us.”
But instead, the Rangel and now Waters ethics stories will fester for a month.
Of course, this constitutes paying the fiddler when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) promised she will “drain the swamp.”
When asked about draining the swamp Thursday, the speaker said that she instituted some of the “toughest ethics reforms in a generation” and approved “landmark legislation requiring unprecedented levels of disclosure on all kinds of activities.”
“Drain the swamp we did, because this was a terrible place,” Pelosi said of the Republican stewardship of Congress prior to 2007.
Tell that to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH).
“This isn’t about Rangel. It’s about Speaker Pelosi’s most-glaring promise that she’s broken when she said in ’06 that it’s time to drain the swamp,” Boehner said. “The swamp has not been drained.”
But even Boehner noted that the Ethics Committee “has been doing its job” and “is in fact, functioning.”
Perhaps the issues of Rangel and Waters playing out in an untimely fashion for Democrats are the consequences of an operational ethics process. And despite Boehner’s comments, he knows Republicans can’t crow too much. Ethics scandals tarnished the GOP. The Ethics Committee twice disciplined former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX). Former Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH) and Duke Cunningham (R-CA) served jail time. Ethics investigators recommended a reprimand for Rangel. But the last lawmaker to receive a formal reprimand was then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) in 1997.
“This has been very painful,” Boehner said of Rangel’s circumstances. “But the rules are the rules, are the rules.”
For her part, Pelosi seemed almost resigned to her party enduring a month of bad press at an inopportune time.
“The chips will have to fall where they may politically,” she said Thursday.
Of course, draining the swamp is a long process. Swamps are big. Certainly compared to bathtubs. A bathtub that’s filling up by the day with more calls from Democrats for Rangel to step aside.
The question is whether Pelosi can drain the swamp. Before the bathtub of lawmakers calling for Rangel’s head overflows.