Getting the moral of the ethics story backwards

GETTING THE MORAL OF THE ETHICS STORY BACKWARDS…. For 12 years, there was a House Republican majority, and during that time the chamber’s ethics committee was something of a joke. There was little interest in pursuing allegations, no matter how serious, and even less interest in actually punishing culpable lawmakers. The ethics panel existed, but it was little more than a fraud.

When Democrats regained the majority, they decided it was time to take lawmaker misconduct seriously again. Indeed, the fact that Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) are facing ethics charges right now is a direct result of Democrats’ commitment to do what Republicans wouldn’t do — police their own.

Joe Conason had a terrific piece on this today.

Back when the Republicans controlled the House, however, their stewardship of ethical standards was a pitiful sham. They set the coverup agenda when they voted in November 2004 to withhold any sanctions against Tom DeLay, then the House majority leader, even if he were to be indicted on a felony count. Naturally they held that vote in secrecy, just after the presidential election, because they represent honesty, transparency and apple pie. (Eventually a surge of public outrage forced them to restore the Democrats’ old rule requiring an indicted member to step down.)

Rather than punish DeLay, the Republican majority purged their decent colleagues on the ethics committee who had voted to admonish him — and replaced them with pliable stooges, including Rep. Tom Cole, now a deputy whip under Minority Leader John Boehner. Their only notable achievement was to stall inquiries into the revolting behavior of Mark Foley, Randy Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney, failing to investigate even as the latter two were on their way to prison (a fate that Foley narrowly escaped). Indeed, during the Republicans’ tenure, five representatives were convicted of felonies, three more were indicted, and a dozen were reportedly subjects of FBI probes — while they literally did nothing.

So will someone please explain how the ascension of Boehner, Cole and their cohort would improve the ethical climate in the House?

It’s the principal reason the GOP’s Rangel/Waters talking points don’t make sense. In order for the argument to be coherent, Republicans would need to characterize these two as part of a larger pattern of party-wide corruption. But that doesn’t make any sense — Rangel and Waters are facing charges, not because Democrats don’t take ethics allegations seriously, but because Democrats do take ethics allegations seriously, far more so than the previous GOP majorities.

Pelosi & Co. brought much-needed reforms and accountability to the chamber, and now the same Republicans who shamed themselves with their culture of corruption — remember when John Boehner literally walked the House floor, handing out checks from the tobacco industry to candidates who voted the “right” way? — think they have the standing to complain now.

As usual, they have it backwards. “Voters have plenty of reasons to feel frustrated and angry this year, but ethics reform is not among them,” Conason noted.