With its murky Christmas Eve announcement that Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., was the target of an unspecified ethics investigation, the House Standards of Official Conduct (Ethics) Committee has added new uncertainties to the fate of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and potentially fueled Republican charges of House Democratic misconduct.
Prospective charges against the 78-year-old Stark are intriguing for several reasons: As the No. 2 Democrat on Ways and Means behind Rangel, 79, Stark is next in line to take the powerful chairmanship if Rangel exits, voluntarily or otherwise. Rangel has been the target of a separate ethics inquiry for more than a year into several aspects of his personal finances; many editorial writers -- as well as Republicans -- have demanded that he step aside as head of the tax-writing panel.
Because Stark's East Bay district is separated by only a few miles of the San Francisco Bay from the district of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he might seem a logical successor to Rangel.
But as House insiders have been saying quietly for many months, Stark's increasingly maverick voting patterns and his sometimes unpredictable behavior have raised serious questions about whether Pelosi -- and the Democratic Caucus -- would be comfortable giving him the top committee post and the responsibilities of party leadership, though it has not been at all clear how House Democrats could avoid such a scenario.
In June, Stark voted against Pelosi's "signature" cap-and-trade energy legislation. He has been mostly a loyal lieutenant in support of health reform as chairman of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, though Pelosi pre-empted many key decisions on that measure, especially in the endgame leading up to its passage in the House.
In an October profile, the Los Angeles Times noted Stark's "big mouth" and called him "one of Congress' most impolitic politicians." Stark told the reporter, "It's difficult for me" when he is under attack, and that his responses are rarely planned. "I don't suffer people who disagree with me that well," he said.
With Stark's problems, and amid growing speculation that Rangel may use passage of health reform as a capstone to conclude his 40-year House career, it may be possible for Democrats to move more comfortably to a new Ways and Means chairman. Next in line following Stark are Reps. Sander Levin, D-Mich., who also is 78, plus 73-year-old Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and 69-year-old John Lewis, D-Ga. All fit comfortably in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. After Lewis in committee seniority is 60-year-old Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., who has closer working relationships with many lobbyists and K Street interests.
This assumes, of course, that Democrats retain control of the House following next November's election. With Democrats' sagging poll numbers and the growing number of strong GOP challengers, House Republicans have voiced increased optimism that they may take control of the chamber. In that case, the next Ways and Means chairman would be Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., a relative pup at age 56.
Given many Democrats' fondness for Rangel, they have been reluctant to discuss succession scenarios. But many junior and more moderate Democrats fear that he could be a re-election burden. That burden may be compounded with the latest report on Stark.
It's possible, of course, that the investigation of Stark will result in no significant action and that he will remain in place. In an elliptical, three-sentence Dec. 24 statement, which has been posted on the committee's Web site and was first reported by Roll Call, ethics chair Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and ranking Republican Jo Bonner, R-Ala., said simply that they had extended for an additional 45 days their review of "a matter regarding Representative Pete Stark," which had been forwarded to the committee by the recently created Office of Congressional Ethics on Nov. 12. They added that the committee would announce its action by Feb. 10, when it might release the OCE's report.
With Congress largely shut down for the holiday break, there was no immediate reaction from either party in the House to the announcement. But with Ways and Means facing a heavy workload in 2010 -- including expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and pressure for deficit reduction -- talk of who will wield the gavel seems inevitable after lawmakers resume work on Jan. 12.
The unusual timing of the ethics announcement -- which a cynic might suggest was chosen for minimal impact -- was reminiscent of Pelosi's Thanksgiving Eve statement in 2008, when she said, "I have been assured the report [on Rangel by the Ethics Committee] will be completed by the end of this session of Congress, which concludes on January 3, 2009." That assertion, which followed additional media revelations about Rangel, proved wildly premature. Instead, the ethics committee announced two weeks later that it had expanded its investigation.
For Republicans, the latest revelation seems certain to encourage their focus on ethical misdeeds. Earlier this year, they forced votes on whether Rangel should step aside as chairman. On Oct. 7, two Democrats and six Republicans bucked their party on the most recent resolution. But Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the National Republican Congressional Committee have continued to hammer Democrats for their "corruption problem."
Democrats got some relief earlier this month when the Office of Congressional Ethics decided against a formal House investigation of Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., as well as Reps. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and Jim Moran, D-Va., regarding their dealings with defunct lobbying firm PMA Group. Republican Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., also was cleared. But other members reportedly remain under investigation in that probe.