Notes on a Scandal

Why pledges to “clean up Washington” never work.

Rep. Charles Rangel

When Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006 on a pledge to “drain the swamp” of corruption that is Washington, D.C., it seemed that Republicans would never escape the muck. Now, with November approaching, not only have Republicans reached dry land, they’re poised to drown Democrats in their own ethical filth.

What’s changed? Very little—and that’s the point. It’s not that Republicans have become saints and Democrats have become devils. It’s that Democrats are in power. The cycle of scandal is less about dramatic spikes in misbehavior than increased scrutiny trained on the party that’s in power, combined with the outsize media response to the ethical lapses of a few.

Remember Election Day 2006? The Republicans were grievously wounded by scandals. Rep. Tom DeLay’s resignation in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal fed the impression that Republicans were in the pocket of corporations. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s resignation and tearful confession to charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion threatened to taint the GOP as a bunch of crooks. Then, a month before Election Day, revelations that Rep. Mark Foley had exchanged inappropriate IMs with male pages completed the picture of the Republican Party as a political garden of earthly delights.

Democrats may not have yet matched GOP’s lows of 2006, but they’re on their way. New York Rep. Charlie Rangel stepped down Wednesday from his post as chairman of the House ways and means committee after the ethics committee censured him for taking corporate-sponsored Caribbean junkets in 2007 and 2008. His House colleague Eric Massa also announced his retirement this week following reports that he may have sexually harassed a male staffer. (Massa cited ill health as his reason for retiring.) That’s a week after New York Gov. David Paterson said he would not run for re-election, obviously dictated by New York Times stories about him allegedly intervening in a domestic violence case involving a top aide. Factor in reminders of Democratic scandals past—a new tell-all book about Eliot Spitzer by a former confidante has pushed the former governor back into the news, the John Edwards saga continues, and the trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is scheduled for early June—and the Democrats are approaching November nearly as tarnished as their opponents were four years ago.

The most reliable predictor of which party will find itself enmeshed in scandal is which one is in power.

“I’ve always called elections the opportunity to throw the bums out and throw a new set of bums in,” says Larry Sabato, political analyst and prognosticator extraordinaire of the University of Virginia. “Partisans never believe that. They think their side is golden and the opposition is a bunch of second cousins to Beelzebub.”

Politicians in power compromise themselves more frequently because they have more opportunities to compromise themselves. The only reason Blagojevich could put Obama’s seat up for sale was because he was governor. And the longer a party is in power, the more time it has to get comfortable and screw up—hence the backlog of GOP misconduct in 2006, after 12 years dominating Congress.

But more important is the increased scrutiny. Any member of Congress is a target for an ethics probe. But the higher his profile, the greater the scrutiny—and the farther they have to fall. Rangel had been going on corporate-sponsored junkets for a decade. (However, the rules he broke by doing so were only in place since 2007.) Meanwhile, his failure to pay federal taxes on rental income for a house he owns in the Dominican Republic, his use of a House of Representatives parking garage as storage space for his Mercedes-Benz, and his ownership of four rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan date back years. But only when Rangel took over the ways and means committee in 2007 did he become a plum target for reporters and congressional probes.

It’s not fair that the ethical misadventures of a few are extrapolated to define the entire party, but they are. “In a field like politics that runs on ambition, a certain percentage of people will be corrupt, period,” says Sabato.

Promising to run “the most honest, most open and most ethical congress in history,” as Pelosi did, is not just futile; it raises expectation dangerously high. The party in power inevitably produces its own scandals, making the original pledge look absurd when its members lapse.

Yet everyone makes the promise. Jimmy Carter promised to be the most honest and ethical president ever and never to lie. Bill Clinton entered the White House flinging similar rhetoric. Both presidents ate their words—Carter for Bert Lance, Clinton for the obvious.

The lesson is simple, says Sabato: Don’t set impossible standards. Here’s what he suggests politicians say: “I can guarantee there are people on my side who will stretch the limits and do things I don’t approve of. I can’t do everything to stop it, but I will endeavor to punish them.” That way, their words can’t be used against them when they fall short of perfection. Of course, promising to run a “pretty darn honest and ethical Congress, if you ask me” doesn’t have quite the same ring. But it’s certainly more realistic.

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