Published December 10, 2006
WASHINGTON – In awarding Rep. William Jefferson a new lease on his political life, Louisiana voters this weekend also saddled Nancy Pelosi with another ethics dilemma as she prepares to become the new Democratic speaker of the House.
Jefferson won a runoff election Saturday despite being dogged by a federal corruption investigation and FBI allegations that he had $90,000 in bribe money in his freezer.
The 9-term Democrat has not been charged with any crime and has denied he did anything wrong. But he returns to Washington under a cloud that will complicate Pelosi's vow to make this "the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history."
Democrats ran against a "culture of corruption" they said Republicans had fostered while in control of Congress. Election-day surveys showed that corruption and scandal were deciding factors in how people voted.
The victory by Jefferson, the first black member of Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction, forces Pelosi to weigh a pledge to run an ethical Congress against the influence of New Orleans' elected representative in Congress, particularly as the city recovers from the devastation of Katrina.
And it renews calls for the creation of an independent ethics body to investigate behavior by members of Congress.
"It's going to be quite a headache for the Democrats," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Sunday.
Last June, Pelosi pressed the House to strip Jefferson of a coveted committee assignment — a seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Pelosi now may come under pressure to restore his committee assignment or at least place him on a committee where he could benefit New Orleans.
After his victory speech Saturday night, Jefferson said: "I don't try to second-guess Ms. Pelosi. I don't go there to work for anyone, I go there to work with the people down here. And I want to work with everyone there. I hope we'll have a chance to talk later."
Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said she did not know what Democratic leaders would do with Jefferson's committee assignments.
"Prior to the election, what Leader Pelosi had said was that it was up to the people of New Orleans to choose who represents them," Crider said.
Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Sunday that Pelosi must guard against appearing to bow to pressure.
"At another level, the fact that he won reelection, that his constituents brought him back, speaks in his favor to get some modest committee assignment."
Washington Democrats stayed out of Jefferson's election, with many privately hoping he would lose his runoff election against Democratic state Rep. Karen Carter. The national party spent no money on behalf of Jefferson, and Carter significantly outraised and outspent him in the campaign.
Republicans now see an opportunity to turn the tables on Democrats.
"Jefferson is going to serve as a telling reminder for the American public that the Democrats and their leadership are all talk when it comes to ethics," said Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Democrats have had a couple of post-election headaches already.
Immediately after Democrats captured control of Congress last month, Pelosi backed Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania over Steny Hoyer of Maryland to be House Democratic leader. The contest drew attention to Murtha's role in the Abscam bribery sting in 1980, though he was not charged in that case. In the end, Hoyer won the leadership race.
Pelosi caused another stir when she decided to bypass Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., as the new head of the House intelligence committee. The move left Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Calif., in line for the slot. Hastings, who was acquitted of bribery charges as a federal judge but later impeached by the House, campaigned aggressively for the chairmanship.
Pelosi has since passed over Hastings to put the intelligence committee in the hands of Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, who was next in line in seniority.
Sloan said it will be especially difficult to deny Jefferson a committee assignment because another Democrat under FBI investigation, Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, is in line to become chairman of a subcommittee that oversees the bureau's budget. Mollohan, whose personal finances have come under scrutiny, is now the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that sets the budget for the Justice Department.
The lingering Jefferson and Mollohan cases may increase pressure for creation of an independent Office of Public Integrity to investigate lawmakers' behavior.
"The concern is whether that culture of corruption was merely a campaign issue," Sloan said, "or whether they will follow through."