As House Democrats try to avert political disaster by limiting their 2010 losses to about 16 seats, the norm for post-World War II presidents' first midterm elections, dealing with their members' ethics problems may be one of their toughest tasks.
With health care reform off their plate for now, House Democrats are showing that they understand the tightrope they must walk -- address unemployment without exacerbating worries about the size of government and the federal deficit. Meanwhile, though, the ethical clouds over House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.; Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee; and several other members of that subcommittee bring back memories of the House Bank and Post Office scandal, which in 1994 helped end 40 years of Democratic rule in the House, and the scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Republican Reps. Bob Ney of Ohio, Tom DeLay of Texas, and Mark Foley of Florida that helped topple the GOP majority in 2006. Independent voters, who swung toward Democrats by an 18-point margin in 2006 and cost Republicans their majority, are particularly sensitive to ethics charges. They will be watching to see whether Democrats clean their own House.
Although a grand jury is unlikely to indict Rangel, he has become a huge embarrassment for Democrats.
The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee smells like a cesspool, one that is threatening to foul the entire Democratic Congress. Several subcommittee members look as if they have been engaging in "pay to play," with campaign contributions being accepted in exchange for earmarks and with government spending decisions linked to jobs or consulting deals for relatives and former staffers. Democrats not on that smarmy subcommittee will likely suffer if they fail to clean the mess up.
Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., is honest as the day is long, but he is incapable of controlling Murtha. Only Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., can rein the Pennsylvanian in. Because Murtha was one of Pelosi's most important supporters as she climbed the leadership ladder, she finds it difficult to turn her back on him. Yet allowing Murtha to keep his subcommittee chairmanship jeopardizes the seats of other Democrats and possibly her speakership.
Although a grand jury is unlikely to indict Rangel, he has become a huge embarrassment for Democrats. If he chaired anything other than the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, his failure to report all his income to the IRS might be less of a problem for his party. Rangel's leadership role is a Democratic headache that's apparently not going away, given the outrage that members of the influential Congressional Black Caucus expressed over early efforts to strip one of their own, William Jefferson, of his Ways and Means seat after $90,000 was found in his freezer. Imagine the Black Caucus's reaction if Pelosi moved against Rangel.
Complicating the Rangel situation is that Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., is next in line in seniority on Ways and Means. He is erratic, controversial, and widely viewed as incapable of being an effective chairman. In some ways, Stark is Rangel's insurance policy.
What many House Democrats would clearly prefer is for Murtha and Rangel to announce that they won't seek re-election, thus avoiding the bloodletting that trying to oust them would cause. The filing deadline for Rangel's seat is July 15. For Murtha's it is March 9.
The leadership can deal with the Ways and Means succession problem after the election. Assuming they keep control of the House, Democrats could turn Ways and Means over to one of the four members immediately behind Stark in seniority -- Sander Levin, D-Mich.; Jim McDermott, D-Wash.; John Lewis, D-Ga.; or Richard Neal, D-Mass.
So the question is whether the Democratic leadership feels it should risk taking no action against Rangel and Murtha; should try to take away their gavels; or should give them a hearty thank-you for their long years of service -- a thank-you accompanied by a big push toward retirement. If Rangel and Murtha signal that they are headed for the exit, they might make themselves less appetizing targets for ambitious prosecutors seeking to nail a politician's scalp to the door.
House Democrats need Speaker Pelosi to lead gently, or not so gently, by moving Rangel and Murtha in the direction that would benefit the overall Democratic Caucus. She is unlikely to act without considerable pressure from caucus members. As the election gets closer and anxiety gets higher, that pressure will probably mount. Otherwise, Democrats will just have to take their chances with Rangel and Murtha onboard and hope for results different from 1994 and 2006.
This article appears in the Nov. 21, 2009, edition of National Journal.