Will Ethics Problems Hurt Pelosi and the House Democrats in 2010?

Do House Democrats have a double standard when it comes to ethics? Word broke earlier this week that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to allow Rep. Chuck Rangel to keep his chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee despite continuing ethics problems. The latest revelation: he failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets on his financial-disclosure forms over the past several years. According to amended forms recently filed with the House, Rangel failed to disclose at least $800,000 in assets and income since 2002. The latest dustup comes amid an ongoing House ethics investigation into other questionable acts by the New York congressman, including his failure to report income from and pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic and his ties to a real-estate developer who leased him four rent-stabilized apartments in New York. The panel is also looking into Rangel's fundraising and whether he improperly used his office to raise money for a public policy center in his name at the City University of New York.

For his part, Rangel has denied any wrongdoing and tallied it all up to accounting mistakes and simple oversights. But Republicans, no doubt happy to be on the other side of an ethics issue after years of problems with Tom DeLay and others, are demanding Rangel give up his chairmanship and provide proof that he accurately reported his income and assets to the IRS. For now, Pelosi is sticking with Rangel, according to aides who say she won't ask him to resign his post unless the ethics committee censures him. "Due process," a House Democratic aide, who declined to be named discussing the situation, tells the Gaggle.

But does this meet the standard Pelosi talked about when Democrats took control of the House and she bragged about ending a "culture of corruption" in Washington? In eyeing the Rangel situation, it's hard not to remember the repeated calls by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders for DeLay to be ousted when he was under an ethics cloud for his ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and questionable fundraising tactics. "Ethically unfit," Pelosi said of DeLay back in 2004. They also trashed the House GOP for its ties to lawmakers like Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney, who went to jail for taking bribes, and for the Abramoff scandal. If Rangel were Pelosi's only problem, it would be one thing, but the ethics panel is currently looking into several Democrats, including another with close ties to Pelosi: Rep. Jack Murtha, chairman of the key Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. In June, the ethics committee announced it was looking into ties between lawmakers and the PMA Group, a lobbying firm with ties to Murtha, whose clients received millions of dollars in defense earmarks in recent years. Several of those contracts were inserted into bills by Murtha, who has denied wrongdoing.

To Pelosi's credit, she led the push to strengthen ethics in the House─though some have questioned what good it has actually done. Last year the House passed legislation creating an Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent watchdog that reviews complaints filed by outside groups and refers them to the House ethics panel─the first time Congress has agreed to weigh outside complaints. But the OCE has reportedly been slowed by hiring problems and other administrative issues. The House ethics panel, which operates largely in secret, has also been accused of moving too slowly. Case in point: Rangel, who has been under investigation by the committee since September 2008. In November, Pelosi declined to comment on Rangel, saying only that she had been told the committee would release its report by January. Nearly a year later, the investigation continues─which has prompted some outside ethics groups to question what is going on and whether an independent investigator should step in. "Unreasonably long," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, tells the Gaggle. "Reforms aside, it seems the ethics committee is as useless as ever. It does not look good for the Dems, who came in promising to clean up the culture of corruption, to remain silent in the face of obviously unethical conduct, such as that exhibited by Rangel and Murtha." The danger for Pelosi─and for all Dems─is that the ethics problems could add to what is already looking like a tough ballot in 2010.