Could Ethics Issues Hurt Democrats in 2010?

Nancy Pelosi likes to brag that she's "drained the swamp" when it comes to corruption in the House, but ethics problems could come back to haunt Democrats in 2010. Democrats are currently the subject of 12 of the 16 complaints pending before the House ethics committee. Two of the lawmakers under scrutiny—Reps. Jack Murtha and Charlie Rangel—have close ties to Pelosi, who has come under criticism for not asking them to resign their committee posts. Murtha, chairman of a key defense-appropriations subcommittee, is is not formally under investigation but the ethics committee is reviewing political contributions he and other House lawmakers received from lobbying firm whose clients received millions of dollars in Defense earmarks. Rangel, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is facing scrutiny for not fully disclosing assets. The ethics committee is also looking into ties between Rangel and a developer who leased rent-controlled apartments to the congressman, and whether Rangel improperly used his House office to raise funds for a public policy institute in his name. Rangel and Murtha deny any wrongdoing. (Another lawmaker under investigation: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who, according to the committee, "may have offered to raise funds" for then–Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich in exchange for the president's Senate seat—a charge Jackson denies. The panel deferred its probe at the request of the Justice Department, which is conducting its own inquiry.)

Pelosi has said little about Rangel's ethics problems, or those involving other Democrats; a Pelosi spokesman, Brendan Daly, e-mails NEWSWEEK, "The speaker has said that [Rangel] should not step aside while the independent, bipartisan ethics committee is investigating."

But watchdog groups, not to mention Republicans, are calling Pelosi hypocritical since Democrats won back control of the House by, in part, trashing the GOP's ethics lapses. Republicans already plan to use the ethics issue against Democrats in 2010. Though Rangel and Murtha aren't as known as Tom DeLay, the GOP poster boy for scandal in 2006, the party aims to change that: this week the House GOP plans to introduce a resolution calling on Rangel to resign his committee post. Pelosi "promised to run the most ethical Congress in history," says Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, "and instead of cracking down on corruption, she promotes it." Daly responds, "Since Democrats took control of Congress, we have strengthened the ethics process."