When the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, they promised to clean up the culture of corruption that had been exemplified by Jack Abramoff-type lobbyist scandals and pay-for-play dealings. Two years ago, the House created an independent ethics office with the power to launch investigations on its own, and the Senate tightened its ethics rules. But these actions and the lofty speeches have not resulted in stronger self-policing. Despite the Democrats' promises, Congress remains unwilling or unable to hold its members accountable.
One of the most ethically challenged is Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the powerful chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel has a boatload of alleged ethical lapses. Among them is his failure — chalked up by his attorneys to sloppy bookkeeping — to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and assets on his House financial disclosure forms. Rangel is suspected of having paid well below market rents for four rent-stabilized apartments in his district in Harlem, which could violate rules barring the receipt of gifts worth more than $100.
The House Ethics Committee has been investigating Rangel's dealings for more than a year. Meanwhile he remains chairman of one of the most powerful committees in Congress, and an effort to oust him from that seat recently failed on a largely party-line vote.
Rangel isn't the only one who has avoided punishment. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is alleged to have sought lucrative work for the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair. The details of Ensign's efforts to get his political donors to toss lobbying work to his former aide have been detailed in news accounts, but the New York Times reports that Senate ethics officials have not yet contacted the former aide. Why the wait?
Numerous ethics investigations have been launched — Democrats are facing at least 10 ethics investigations — but the probes seem to be taking an insufferably long time. Is this thoroughness or foot-dragging? Cleaning up one's own house is never easy. But Democrats came back into power in part on a pledge to do the dirty work, and they need to work harder to make good on that promise.