Ethics Cooties

An inconspicuous construction project began late last week on the west front of the U.S. Capitol. When finished, the Capitol will feature a “Steven Slater” button. If depressed by either the Speaker of the House or the minority leader, the button will deploy a gigantic, inflatable escape slide which will fold onto the National Mall.

The escape slide will replace the House Ethics Committee. And it can only be used if either party leader feels the need to jettison a lawmaker whose alleged ethics transgressions are creating waves for the party right before a crucial election.

Of course this is a joke and the Capitol will have no escape slide. But if you’re a Democrat, you wouldn’t blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) if she secretly earmarked some money for such a project amid the ethics clouds swirling right now around Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA).

Rangel is accused of using House resources to raise money for a school of public affairs in his name at City College of New York, failing to pay income taxes on a vacation villa in the Dominican Republic and his acquisition of four, rent-controlled apartments in Harlem.

House ethics investigators accuse Waters of using her position to assist the bank OneUnited secure federal assistance when it was undercapitalized. Her husband owns stock in the institution and once sat on the board. Waters argues she never did anything to help OneUnited and instead was trying to help a trade association that represents minority-owned banks like OneUnited.

This is a turbulent time for Democrats right now. Many Democrats facing tough re-election fights just want to the Rangel and Waters ethics skirmishes to disappear, lest ethics cooties rub off on them. And I’m sure Democrats facing competitive races in rural Ohio, Indiana, Colorado, Mississippi and Alabama winced when President Obama announced his support for the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero.

But Rangel and Waters aren’t going anywhere. They’ve both demanded House trials to defend themselves against the ethics charges. Which in fact, could be the worst possible scenario for the party. Both Rangel and Waters have criticized the Ethics Committee for not scheduling timely forums for them. And on Friday, Waters speculated that her trial might not unfold until the end of the year.

“‘We don’t have the staff. We may not get to these hearings before the elections,’” Waters said, paraphrasing what the Ethics Committee informed her about her fate.

That’s a bad situation for not only Rangel and Waters but the whole party. There’s no finality. Only conjecture. Perhaps one or both lawmakers can clear their names. But with no resolution, these ethics woes will hang over the party like a Sword of Damocles.

“I am not going away,” said Rangel during his extraordinary floor speech last week, daring Democrats skittish about his ethics problems to try to kick him out.

Meantime, Waters is taking a similar tact.

“I won’t go behind closed doors. I won’t cut a deal. I will continue to talk about (how) I’ve not violated anything,” said a defiant Waters.

Lawmakers facing ethics fire usually hunker down and avoid the press. But on Friday, Waters and her Chief of Staff Mikael Moore (who is also her grandson) summoned reporters to the Capitol Visitor’s Center to present a compelling case in an effort to refute the charges. Waters delivered a pointed opening statement rejecting the allegations. Moore then walked through reporters through an extensive, 50-slide PowerPoint presentation that included transcripts, redacted emails and news articles. He used a red laser pointer to highlight various quotes and direct the attention of reporters to portions of the slides.

Even Waters characterized the session as “outside of the box.”

In the case of Rangel, one of his investigators, Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) announced that the subcommittee conducting its probe recommended that the House formally reprimand the New York Democrat. Green later apologized to Ethics Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) for announcing that recommendation to reporters.

But Waters hedged when I asked if her investigative subcommittee proposed a potential penalty for her, thus prompting the California Democrat to request for a formal ethics trial.

“I am teetering on a border here. You’re getting into part of the discussion by the Ethics Committee and I can’t go any further” Waters said. “If someone is accused, goes into the back room and agrees to some violation, it would avoid all of the public press. It would be easy on the committee itself.”

Easy on the committee. And easy on House Democrats facing the most volatile election climate in 16 years.

But both Waters and Rangel feel the Ethics Committee is railroading them. They want to defend themselves. Such a drill could yield favorable results for both lawmakers. But this further complicates electoral consequences for Democrats. This is compounded by the fact that Pelosi and the Democrats rode to power in 2006 promising to “drain the swamp.” Republicans were on the ropes amid the ethics lapses of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), the criminal convictions of former Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) and Bob Ney (R-OH) and the abrupt resignation of Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL), who was accused of sending inappropriate electronic messages to male, teenage House pages.

Democrats were able to make serious hay with the GOP’s ethics transgressions. And one would think that Republicans would do the same here.

But the bottom line is, Republicans don’t need to this time.

First, there is the Congressional “glass house” syndrome. Some Republicans would like to launch a full-throttle ethics attack on the Democrats. But they know many of their own members could fall into the same ethics traps that have hamstrung Democrats. Plus, many question how fair the ethics process really is, which is precisely an assertion leveled by both Rangel and Waters.

Instead, Republicans are playing it cool when it comes to Congressional ethics.

Democrats may fret about the appearances of Rangel and Waters on the precipice of an election with the House in play. But the real issues this year focus on the economy, health care reform and “blind” support for the agenda of a president who is slipping in the polls and personifies electoral Kryptonite in swing districts in the Midwest, Pennsylvania, Virginia, upstate New York and parts of New England.

Ethics problems for the Democrats are proverbial cherries on top of the sundae for Republicans. The GOP doesn’t have to press this issue nor shout it from the mountaintop. Waters and Rangel could be innocent or guilty. But the more the press reports on Congressional ethics is just gravy for Republicans. The GOP knows that swing voters in borderline districts will hear about these allegations on the news and potentially copy those impressions onto whichever candidate just happens to have a “D” next to his or her name.

Call this “ethics cooties.” They’re contagious, whether you’ve done anything wrong or not. Ethics cooties emerged as a pandemic for Republicans in 2006. And ethics cooties are in the air this year for the Democrats.

In politics, ethics cooties make swine flu look like a simple sneeze.

So don’t be surprised if you see Democrats coughing into shirtsleeves and washing their hands at every stop. Ethics cooties are viral this fall. And until Rangel and Waters are cleared, there’s no vaccine and all Democrats are exposed.