The Obama administration has fielded some tough ethics questions lately, and Congress may be next.
House Democrats have done their best to tamp down smoldering controversies involving Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and John Murtha, D-Pa, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. But the questions dogging the two are not likely to go away soon, particularly given recent Republican efforts to revive the ethics wars.
Democratic leaders beat back a GOP bid to remove Rangel from his Ways and Means chairmanship last week as the chamber voted 242-157 to scuttle a resolution by Republican Conference Secretary John Carter, R-Texas. Carter had called on Rangel to step down as chairman until the House Standards of Official Conduct (Ethics) Committee concludes its probe into his activities. (Sixteen House members, including those investigating Rangel, voted present.)
Rangel himself called for the ethics inquiry last year following disclosures that he used congressional letterhead to solicit money for an educational charity named after him, a flat violation of House rules. Since then the allegations involving Rangel have piled up, and the ethics panel has expanded its probe to include other tax and fundraising questions.
There's little disagreement that recent steps to strengthen the ethics process on Capitol Hill have been largely symbolic.
The most serious of these is that Rangel helped preserve a tax loophole for an oil and gas drilling company at the same time as its chief executive was pledging some $1 million to support the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. Rangel also stands accused of paying below-market rents for four apartments, failing to pay taxes on rental income from a vacation home in the Dominican Republic and failing to report the value of a Florida condominium.
Rangel has denied all the allegations against him and has expressed confidence that the ethics panel will clear him soon. But recently the committee voted to resume its probe, which has been handed off to a four-member investigative subcommittee headed by Reps. Gene Green, D-Texas, and Jo Bonner, R-Ala., also the full committee's ranking GOP member.
Murtha may be the next target of GOP ethics maneuvers. There's talk that House Republicans may also try to oust Murtha from his subcommittee chairmanship.
Federal agents have raided the offices of three defense firms closely tied with Murtha: Kuchera Industries and Kuchera Defense Systems in western Pennsylvania and the PMA Group in Arlington, Va. Murtha directed some $8.2 million in earmarks to the two Pennsylvania firms in fiscal 2008, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Murtha also helped direct some $38 million in earmarks to the PMA Group, the tax watchdog group has disclosed. The PMA Group and its clients also have donated some $167,400 to Murtha and to his political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Murtha has said categorically that the federal raids have nothing to do with him and that he is not the target of any investigation.
Still, the federal probes have caused fallout on K Street and may soon create more headaches on Capitol Hill. There's been an exodus of lobbyists from the PMA Group, which was founded by an ex-Murtha aide; some of those leaving have started a new firm dubbed Flagship Government Relations. And Murtha is not the only House lawmaker with financial ties to PMA. The top two recipients of PMA campaign contributions are Reps. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., and Jim Moran, D-Va.
The ethics-sensitive tone set by President Obama may make it harder for lawmakers on Capitol Hill to sweep ethics controversies under the rug. However, observers differ over whether Obama's new ethics rules have brought, or can bring, real change to Washington. There's little disagreement that recent steps to strengthen the ethics process on Capitol Hill have been largely symbolic.
The House did recently open its Office of Congressional Ethics, staffed by outside experts who will field initial complaints. But without subpoena power, that office lacks meaningful clout, reform advocates complain.
"The way it's been set up, it's nearly impossible for them to be successful," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "They have no real authority."
Obama's early pledges to extend new ethics rules to Capitol Hill, moreover, appear to have quickly fallen off the radar. Earlier this year, the administration's Change.gov and WhiteHouse.gov Web sites posted a multi-part ethics agenda that included plans to slash earmarks and push for "an independent watchdog agency to oversee the investigation of congressional ethics violations" on Capitol Hill.
But less than a day after Roll Call reported the details of that plan, the Web page describing them mysteriously disappeared. The ethics agenda link on WhiteHouse.gov now reads: "The ethics section is currently being revised" to reflect President Obama's Jan. 21 ethics executive order.
It's "interesting that these things were on the White House Web site and they just kind of disappeared," said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation. "I think George Orwell called it the 'memory hole.'" Allison added that "both parties seem to make their ethics rules to break them." The simmering Rangel and Murtha controversies make that increasingly clear.