A tale of two scandals, cont’d

A TALE OF TWO SCANDALS, CONT’D…. We’ve talked a bit lately about a curious set of circumstances: Rep. Charlie Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) ethics controversy is generating considerable attention, while Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) criminal investigation is largely ignored, despite a series of recent developments. Chris Hayes and I had a chance to chat about it on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Friday night.

I’m delighted to see the question get asked in other forums. On “This Week” yesterday, Paul Krugman raised the issue, and said he doesn’t understand the disparity, either. “There are actually two major investigations of members of Congress underway right now,” Krugman noted. “There’s Charlie Rangel, who’s accused of some fairly petty, although stupid and wrong, ethical violations, and there’s Sen. John Ensign, who’s facing a criminal investigation and which actually — it’s even a story that involves sex. And you get no publicity whatsoever on the Ensign investigation.”

Host Christiane Amanpour asked George Will if this is fair. He replied:

“Well, Rangel is much more important, because he’s chairman of an important committee. And in fact, Rangel’s misfortune is a national misfortune, because we desperately need — and after the deficit commission reports in December, we might have had — serious tax reform in this country. That requires a cooperative member leading that committee in the House.”

As Jon Chait reminds us, that’s wrong. Rangel isn’t the chairman of an important committee; he was the chairman of an important committee. In March, Rangel gave up his Ways & Means gavel, and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) is in the big chair now. Ethics charges against the guy who used to be a key committee chairman isn’t nearly as interesting.

Indeed, Will’s argument isn’t just factually mistaken, it’s based on a false assumption. Rangel could help move a tax reform proposal, but Levin can’t? If anything, that’s probably backwards, since Rangel, even if he’d kept his gavel, saw his reputation tarnished by the probe.

OK, so Will’s wrong. But why is Rangel’s ethics problem getting vast amounts of attention, while Ensign’s criminal problem is getting ignored? I suggested the IOKIYAR rule might play a role here, and Chris made the case that it’d be a bigger story if Democrats pushed it more. Both seem plausible.

Some commenters have suggested a regional dynamic — major news outlets are in New York, not Las Vegas — while race may also be a factor.

Whatever the reasoning, if the heretofore ignored grand jury in the Ensign sex-ethics-corruption scandal starts issuing indictments, it’s a whole new ballgame.