On June 15, beneath the crystal chandeliers and Corinthian pilasters of the Cannon Caucus Room, House Democrats had to decide how they really felt about the "culture of corruption." After months of expressing outrage over Republican scandals, what would they do about the $90,000 the FBI had found in the freezer of one of their own?
To House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the answer was obvious: Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) had to give up his coveted spot on the Ways and Means Committee. But at the closed-door caucus meeting, several black Democrats complained that Pelosi was not their emperor or queen, while Jefferson implored his colleagues to keep him on Ways and Means for the sake of Hurricane Katrina's victims. No one spoke up for Pelosi -- except Pelosi.
She began by praising Jefferson's wife and five daughters: Jamila, Jalila, Jelani, Nailah and Akilah. But she quickly made it clear that Jefferson's legal problems had become her political problem: "I am not an emperor or a queen. But neither am I a fool."
Pelosi explained that Democrats should be the party of ethics, that appearances count, that dealing forcefully with Jefferson's scandal would help everyone else in the room. "You didn't elect me emperor or queen," she said. "You elected me leader."
The Democrats overwhelmingly voted Jefferson off the committee. And in November, Americans voted Democrats into the majority, citing corruption as one of the issues that soured them on the GOP.
Today, after becoming the first Democratic speaker in 12 years and the first female speaker in the history of the House, Pelosi will offer a comprehensive package of ethics reforms, a down payment on her pledge to run "the most ethical Congress ever."
But it is not yet clear whether Jefferson's ouster heralded a new era of honesty and accountability, or just a one-off political calculation inspired by the 2006 campaign. After the midterm elections, Pelosi ignored the ethical cloud around Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to support his bid to be majority leader, and she nearly chose Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) to chair the intelligence committee even though the House once impeached him when he was a federal judge. And, in December, when Jefferson faced a fight for his political life in a runoff against state Rep. Karen R. Carter, a black Democrat with none of his ethical baggage, Pelosi refused to get involved.
Today, Jefferson will take his seat in Pelosi's House. His inconvenient presence will be a constant reminder of the fine line the new speaker will have to walk between rhetoric and reality, between the cross-cutting demands of her caucus and the demands of the public.
"Pelosi wouldn't even take my calls," Carter said. "None of the Democrats in Washington would take my calls. They all said they wanted to get rid of corruption, but I guess it wasn't their top priority."
Pelosi and Jefferson declined to comment for this story. But Brendan Daly, Pelosi's spokesman, said his boss will be as outspoken about ethics while in power as she was while in the minority.
"If there's something that needs to be addressed, we'll address it," he said. "The politics are not the reason."
‘Culture of corruption’
In 1994, Republicans seized control of the House as the party of reform, pledging in their "Contract With America" to "restore accountability to Congress." By 2006, that pledge was a punch line. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and his K Street Project had turned the corporate lobbying community into a virtual subsidiary of the GOP. Republican leaders routinely moved bills stuffed with earmarks and special-interest giveaways late at night, without giving members a chance to read them. A huge scandal was swirling around Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and investigators were swarming around DeLay, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio).
Many House Democrats were genuinely outraged by what they regarded as misrule by the GOP. But Pelosi and her top political adviser, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), also saw that the Republican "culture of corruption" could be a winning issue.
In 2005, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), led by Emanuel, unveiled a "House of Scandal" Web site, and Emanuel co-wrote a "Special Interest Lobbying and Ethics Accountability Act." Pelosi, who used to serve on the House ethics committee, later introduced an "Honest Leadership and Open Government Act." Their focus groups suggested that simple anti-corruption campaigns would not work, but that voters would respond to messages that tied Republican coziness with special interests such as the petroleum and pharmaceutical industries and to quality-of-life issues such as gas and drug prices.
"The point was that Republicans had sold the country to the highest bidder," Emanuel said.
But the Democrats had a few problems of their own, such as Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee. Mollohan had fought Republican efforts to completely defang the already weakened committee, but a conservative nonprofit group revealed that he had become rich while serving in Congress, often through real estate deals with beneficiaries of his earmarks.
Pelosi liked Mollohan, and she thought that he was being targeted by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and other Republicans as payback. But the story of Mollohan's millions did not go away, and within days, she asked him to leave the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the House ethics panel is formally known. She wanted to draw a clear distinction between Democrats and Republicans, who had given DeLay and Ney standing ovations long after their ethical problems became clear.
Mollohan grudgingly agreed to step aside. "There was no alternative," recalled Murtha, a close friend of Mollohan's and Pelosi's.
But Pelosi never pressured Mollohan to give up his seat on the House Appropriations Committee. "She would have talked to me if she was even considering it," Murtha said.
Pelosi faced a trickier dilemma with Jefferson, whose former aide had implicated him in a bribery scheme. For months, Pelosi took no action, saying the legal system should run its course. Jefferson was allowed to brief House Democrats about Katrina at a caucus meeting, and he held a campaign fundraiser at Democratic headquarters.
A Harvard Law School graduate who had picked cotton as a boy, Jefferson was Louisiana's first black representative since Reconstruction. And Pelosi was wary of antagonizing the Congressional Black Caucus, one of her party's most influential factions.
But on May 20, 2006, at 7:15 p.m., federal agents raided Jefferson's office on Capitol Hill, the first time that had ever happened to a sitting congressman. And the FBI affidavit justifying the raid revealed the inconvenient $90,000 in the freezer, along with transcripts of a taped conversation that appeared to capture Jefferson soliciting a bribe.
Pelosi quickly realized that late-night jokes about "Dollar Bill" and his cold cash were muddying her message about GOP corruption. She joined with Hastert in condemning the raid as an executive-branch intrusion on congressional prerogatives, but she also met privately with Jefferson and asked him to leave Ways and Means.
He refused, saying his lawyers were not letting him tell his side of the story. But she insisted that he must step down, just as a police officer would be suspended during an official investigation. When he balked, she sent a formal letter requesting his resignation from Ways and Means, "in the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus."
Jefferson replied that Pelosi's request was "perplexing and unreasonable," noting that his legal problems had nothing to do with Ways and Means. He wrote that it was also "discriminatory" because no other House member under federal investigation has been asked to leave a "substantive, legislative committee," an obvious reference to Mollohan and the appropriations panel.
Jefferson's allies took up his cause. Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), a Yale Law School graduate who heads the Black Caucus, told Pelosi at the June meeting that her decisions on ethical issues would be totally arbitrary without a "bright line standard." Pelosi said her standard was common sense, noting: "Anybody with $90,000 in their freezer, you have a problem at that point."
That was not good enough for Watt. "Okay, how much cash in the freezer does it take?" he asked in an interview. "The problem is not that there's a double standard. The problem is there's no standard."
In early June, after Republicans retained Cunningham's seat in a special election, some pundits declared the corruption issue a political loser. But Pelosi saw that the GOP had been forced to spend heavily to defend a conservative district. She had faith in the corruption issue, as long as voters could see that the two parties were not equally corrupt. That meant distancing Democrats from "Dollar Bill." "We wanted our members to be able to say: 'We deal with this kind of thing, and they don't,' " one leadership aide recalled.
At the Democrats' June 15 meeting, Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (Mich.), Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (Ill.) and Watt all spoke on Jefferson's behalf before Pelosi took the floor. Pelosi said that she did not want to force this decision on the caucus, but that Jefferson, unlike "other people" -- another reference to Mollohan -- had refused to step down. "We're about high ethical standards," she said.
When she was done, one of Jefferson's supporters demanded a secret ballot. "I would have it no other way," Pelosi replied.
The Democrats then followed their leader.
Pelosi is a San Francisco liberal, and some critics expect her to steer her caucus to the far left. But her allies say the Jefferson affair shows that she cares less about ideology than unity. "It was a real defining moment for her leadership," said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.).
During the Democratic landslide on Nov. 7, more voters told exit pollsters that corruption was "extremely important" to their vote, rather than terrorism, the economy or the war in Iraq. Emanuel counted eight races in which charges of personal misconduct had cost incumbents their seats. That did not bode well for Jefferson, who had limped into a runoff with Carter, a young state legislator from a prominent Democratic family in New Orleans.
Carter ran on corruption, arguing that Jefferson had become a pariah in Washington. Louisiana Democrats endorsed her, and she hoped that the national party might as well. She knew the DCCC did not usually help challengers against Democratic incumbents, but she figured incumbents were not usually caught with $90,000 in their freezers.
So she called Pelosi. Several times. "Her people told me: 'She's very busy, Karen. Call back after the leadership elections,' " Carter recalled. So she did. Several times.
The result: "She's very busy, Karen."
Carter eventually got through to Pelosi's chief of staff, John Lawrence, but she never heard from Pelosi. She also made several calls to Emanuel but only heard back from his political director, Sean Sweeney.
"You know, this isn't my first rodeo. I understand they had a sitting congressman who hadn't been indicted," Carter said. "But they had run around the country saying they were going to end the 'culture of corruption.' I thought they might, at least, return my calls."
In fact, Democratic leaders never really considered helping Carter. "We're an incumbent-protection organization," said Sarah Feinberg, DCCC spokeswoman. The leaders privately rooted for Carter to unseat their most notorious albatross, but they did not want to alienate the Black Caucus or scare every Democratic incumbent with a potential primary opponent.
"Obviously, having Jefferson around complicates our message," said one leadership aide. "But taking him on would have created so many more problems." DCCC officials also thought that helping Carter would make her look like the candidate of Washington, and of whites.
But Carter was eager for the help. It would have bolstered her message that Jefferson was a Hill pariah and would have undercut Jefferson's message that he was a victim of a GOP plot.
In the end, although she was supported by several prominent Louisiana political figures such as former senator John Breaux (D), Carter did not receive a single endorsement from incumbent House members.
Meanwhile, the Black Caucus -- as well as individual legislators such as incoming House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) -- poured money into Jefferson's campaign. Watt taped a radio ad for him, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) campaigned for him. Their calculations were simple. "Jefferson, over time, has supported me, and I've supported him," Clyburn explained.
Ultimately, Jefferson won handily enough that even Carter does not blame her defeat on national Democrats. But she does wonder about their commitment to reform.
"I kept saying: 'This is the culture of corruption, and you can help stop it,' " Carter said. "They chose to ignore me. If the leadership had made a clear statement that this kind of behavior was unacceptable, maybe they wouldn't have to deal with him anymore."
Pelosi has kept Jefferson off the Ways and Means Committee in the 110th Congress. She did grant him a spot on the Small Business Committee, but even clean-government advocates said that she has done all that could be expected.
The advocates are less impressed by her handling of Mollohan, who will lead the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the FBI while its agents investigate him. Pelosi also raised eyebrows with her support for Murtha, whose candidacy for majority leader was doomed by ethical controversies from the 1980s. And after she backed off her plan to woo the Black Caucus by giving the intelligence committee to Hastings, who had lost his judgeship over bribery allegations, she reached out to the Hispanic caucus by turning to Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), who was embroiled in his own ethical controversy over funding for a border-security firm.
Lobbyists and legislation
Ultimately, Pelosi thinks she will be judged by the record of the Democratic majority, and by the ethics overhaul it will begin today. Members would be barred from accepting -- from lobbyists or their clients -- gifts, meals, flights on corporate jets or trips that last longer than a day. They would also have to disclose all of their earmarks and certify that the provisions will not benefit them personally. The goal is to end K Street's reign over Capitol Hill -- or, as Clyburn puts it, to "cut the umbilical cord between lobbyists and legislation."
"She takes ethics really seriously," said George Crawford, a former Pelosi aide who is now a lobbyist. "She's not just going to bow to the politics of the moment."
But it is true that Pelosi's $90,000-in-the-freezer standard is not a real standard at all. She has handled Jefferson, Mollohan, Murtha and Hastings on a case-by-case basis, evaluating the seriousness of the allegations, as well as the potential fallout inside and outside the caucus. She is now the leader of the House, but she is still the leader of House Democrats.
"In the end, she's going to do what she thinks is in the best interests of the caucus," Crawford said.