Scandal Land

Today’s must-read comes from The Washington Post’s Jeff Birnbaum, who takes a look at the larger portents of the congressional corruption convictions of the last week.

First former DeLay flak-turned-lobbyist Mike Scanlon pled guilty to attempting to corrupt public officials, then yesterday, now former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a truculent California conservative admitted what everyone else had figured out months ago: That he had taken bribes (including a 150-year old commode).


For several years now, corporations and other wealthy interests have made ever-larger campaign contributions, gifts and sponsored trips part of the culture of Capitol Hill. But now, with fresh guilty pleas by a lawmaker and a public relations executive, federal prosecutors -- and perhaps average voters -- may be concluding that the commingling of money and politics has gone too far.

So what does this mean politically?

Republicans, who control the White House and Congress, are most vulnerable to this wave. But pollsters say that voters think less of both political parties the more prominent the issue of corruption in Washington becomes, and that incumbents generally could feel the heat of citizen outrage if the two latest guilty pleas multiply in coming months.

No fewer than seven lawmakers, including a Democrat, have been indicted, have pleaded guilty or are under investigation for improper conduct such as conspiracy, securities fraud and improper campaign donations. Congress's approval ratings have fallen off the table, in some measure because of headlines about these scandals.

Which raises a question for Democrats: How to handle this? On the one hand, they’ve signaled an intention to make it a main plank in their 2006 campaign (see their "culture of corruption” slogan), but questions remain as to their willingness to press it hard in face of potential blowback. Perhaps they will take a page from the GOP playbook.

As the editors of The New Republic noted in August:

House rules give the minority party virtually no power--except over ethics matters. Which means that pretty much the only way for Democrats to regain the majority is through the kind of ruthless assault on corruption that invariably endangers congressmen on both sides of the aisle. As The New Republic's Michael Crowley has noted ("Learning from Newt," January 24), Newt Gingrich grasped this logic intuitively when he fanned the flames of the House banking scandal in the early '90s. Gingrich believed that, while seizing on ethics presented real risks--Gingrich himself was implicated, albeit on a relatively small scale--a scandal that touched almost everyone in Congress would invariably hurt Democrats more, since they controlled the House. Conversely, a refusal to risk collateral damage might have saved some longtime GOP incumbents but done nothing to return the party to power.

At the height of the furor over DeLay this spring, an anonymous Republican aide told Roll Call that, "in the end, we're the most affected by [the ethical cloud over Congress]. ... We are in the majority, and we have a hell of a lot more to lose than they do." How many more years in the minority will it take before Democrats reach the same conclusion?

Stay tuned.