by Ken Feltman
… and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
– Abraham Lincoln
(October 30, 2009) A Radnor researcher was among those who discovered the names of members of the House of Representatives who are under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The Washington Post is breaking the story today and other media outlets are expected to begin circling the waters in search of more blood.
An especially juicy tidbit is the fact that nearly half of the members of a powerful Pentagon appropriations subcommittee, from both parties, are under investigation. This follows news that the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee is being investigated, as are several other influential members of the House.
Before reaching judgment, remember that most investigations are dismissed. Many of the charges are purely partisan payback. The standards for sustaining charges, but not for lodging them, have changed since 1995, when Ways and Means Chair Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) was sent to federal prison. Current Attorney General Eric Holder prosecuted Rostenkowski, whose conduct would have been perfectly legal in Illinois, but was a violation of widely broken and ignored House rules. His enemies in both parties brought him down even as former President Ford and dozens of other Republicans joined Democrats to defend the humiliated Rostenkowski.
Nonetheless, the ethics investigations will influence the 2010 elections. The voters are weary. The voters are restless. Shenanigans are beginning to rub voters the wrong way. Today’s ethics investigations are influenced by what many in 1995 saw as the railroading of an effective legislator by an ambitious prosecutor. Interestingly, behavior by the Speaker at about the same time has only encouraged juvenile behavior in today’s House.
The numbers game
Two decades ago, Speaker of the House Jim Wright, a feisty Texan, grew irritated with House Minority Leader Bob Michel, a mild-mannered moderate Republican from Illinois. Wright distributed a memorandum to all Members of Congress stating that if the room number of a Congressman’s office was not clearly visible, the House post office would not deliver the mail. At the time, many Congressmen placed their state seal or flag over the numbers and more than a few obscured the numbers with their names.
Michel’s numbers were clearly visible, but not for long: Wright ordered the House carpenter to removed the numbers during the wee hours of the night. The mail stopped. Michel’s office ordered new numbers from the carpenter, who said he had none in stock, so the staff wrote the numbers on a piece of paper and taped it to the door. Word came from the Speaker’s office that only approved numbers, installed by the House carpenter, were sufficient. The Battle of the Door Numbers raged for a few more days until Michel did his penance and Wright mellowed.
Pettiness is part of the folklore of the House. Congressmen have returned from hearings to find their office locks changed and staff evicted. The majority party has sent memos directing members of the minority to hearings in the wrong room, at the wrong time, on the wrong day. Then, the majority party has chided the other party for missing the hearing. During meetings, movers have shown up to remove the furniture. Telephones have gone dead. The House office directories have been reissued without some members’ names. Hallway guards – who report to the Speakers’ office – have “forgotten” where a congressman’s office is.
Now, from another House, the fraternity house
College boys lack the imagination of a House Speaker settling scores. Nancy Pelosi referred to such childishness as a reason to support her for speaker, clearly implying that a woman would be above such behavior. But silly pranks are not gender-based and Pelosi’s tolerance for retribution and hazing may set records. Here are just a few things that have happened in the past few weeks:
Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, scheduled a meeting. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Cal.), the highest ranking Republican on the committee, announced that he planned to ask the committee to subpoena records related to “sweetheart” mortgages seemingly granted to two senators and – surprise! – to Chairman Towns.
When Republicans arrived at the Committee’s hearing room, no Democrats could be found. After about 30 minutes, a Democratic staff member said that the meeting had been cancelled. Perhaps the Republican part had been cancelled but maybe not the Democratic part: a Republican staffer stumbled upon the committee Democrats meeting in a nearby room. They locked him out. But the Republican staffers smelled something fishy and staked out the back door to the room. Sure enough, the Democrats soon filed out the back door, looking as if they were trying to avoid detection. Too late: They were recorded by an enterprising GOP staff member. Soon, that videotape was featured on YouTube and some Republican websites.
The changing of the locks
Enraged that they had been ridiculed, the Democrats resorted to a tried-and-true tactic: They changed the locks from the Republican offices into the Committee hearing room. The changing of the locks is as much a tradition in Washington, it seems, as the changing of the guard is in London.
Towns said the new locks were necessary because Republicans “do not know how to behave.” Then, in classic “they started it” mode, Towns charged that Republicans are just as guilty of pettiness and recalled that Way and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Cal.) once sent the Capitol Police to round up Democrats who were hiding to avoid a quorum vote. Towns neglected to mention that Thomas’ 2003 stunt ended badly, with a tearful Thomas forced to apologize in the well of the House.
As the Battle of the Locks cooled, a few members of Congress confessed to laughing so hard that they had tears in their eyes. But for average citizens, any tears are tears of bitter disappointment. A change of locks and a YouTube video will not fix what is broken in Washington.
The voters hold the key, of course, but they find it hard to separate the juvenile legislators from the corrupt ones, and the corrupt ones from the diligent ones. Beside, most of the clownish congressmen come from districts that routinely reelect the incumbent. Computer-assisted redistricting has eliminated most competitive districts. A by-product of less competition on election day is an increase in clowns and animals in Congress. Get enough clowns and animals together and you have the makings of a circus.
Another by-product is legislative gridlock, which voters can identify and understand. Every so often, voters get fed up and throw the incumbents out – and that makes incumbents in competitive districts vulnerable, despite the fact that electoral competitiveness seems to produce worthy legislators.
Here’s a fair warning to members of Congress: 2010 is beginning to look like one of those “throw the bums out” elections. Fair warning to voters: The members of Congress that you throw out next year, regardless of party, are likely to be moderate and conscientious. They have to be: They represent moderate, competitive districts. The 2010 elections may mean that the next Congress will have more pranksters, not fewer; more partisanship, not less.
What’s that saying about locking somebody up and throwing away the key?