The revelation that Democratic appropriations kingpins may face an ethics investigation of their campaign donations moves Republicans closer to gaining a corruption issue in 2010.
Republicans know well how lapses in ethical standards can sink a political party. They lost control of the House in the 2006 midterm election, succumbing in part to accusations from Democrats that the GOP had produced a "culture of corruption" in which lobbyists showered gifts on lawmakers in exchange for government contracts and other legislative favors.
The Democratic chairman and senior Republican on the House ethics committee dropped their political bomb Thursday night, announcing that the panel is reviewing the practice of lawmakers steering money and contracts to favored companies, and then receiving campaign contributions in return for the "earmarks."
The announcement came months after the Justice Department began a criminal investigation of the matter and a repetition of House votes on Republican motions — all of them defeated — calling for an ethics probe of lawmakers who engage in what is often called a "pay-to-play" system for funneling federal dollars to select companies and projects.
The review could turn into a full-blown ethics investigation later, with the potential for scathing reports that could become campaign fodder.
The personification of corruption?
Democratic Reps. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, Pete Visclosky of Indiana and Jim Moran of Virginia, all members of the money-dispensing House Appropriations Committee, received significant campaign donations from lobbyists from a defunct firm, PMA, and its clients — companies that got money for pet projects.
Their risk is that Republicans will be able to depict them as the personification of corruption, much in the way Democrats portrayed former Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and ex-GOP Reps. Bob Ney of Ohio and Duke Cunningham of California going into the 2006 election. Ney and Cunningham both ended up being sentenced to federal prison.
Republicans can take credit for smoking out Thursday's announcement of the ethics inquiry. Eight times this year, Republicans kept the PMA issue in the public eye — forcing votes on a resolution demanding an ethics investigation of lawmakers tied to the lobbying firm.
The resolution didn't mention Murtha, chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee and a legend for steering defense contracts to his western Pennsylvania district. While others who sponsored pet projects also received PMA-related money, politically the resolution was largely about Murtha, a Vietnam Marine Corps veteran who has spent 35 years in the House and is one of Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi's mentors.
More Democrats back investigation
While majority Democrats defeated the resolution each time, Republicans kept picking up Democrats with successive votes — many of them first- or second-term lawmakers.
The first vote to demand an inquiry was backed by 17 Democrats, the last by 29. Many of those Democrats had campaigned for strict ethical standards, some winning by narrow margins in what had been Republican districts. They didn't want to chance being branded as hypocrites.
"I come from a town that has a scandal du jour — Chicago. And that (ethics reform) has always been my issue," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill, who was only sworn in as a House member April 21 but wasted no time in supporting the Republican-proposed resolution.
Added Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., "My job is to be an independent voice for New Hampshire."
Some of the Democrats just squeaked through in the last election. Freshman Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama, who replaced a retiring Republican, won with just over 50 percent of the vote. So did first-termer Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, also elected from a Republican district with less than 51 percent.
Quigley, on the other hand, won about 70 percent of the vote and Rep. Henry Johnson, D-Ga., was unopposed for his second term in 2008.
Pelosi tried to blunt the Republican offensive by arranging a lecture to party members by the former top Democrat on the House ethics committee, Rep. Howard Berman of California.
Berman told Democratic colleagues in a closed meeting that there's a right and wrong way to start an ethics investigation. The wrong way was let the minority party initiate one.
"I assume he (Berman) wasn't there by accident," said freshman Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn.
Himes said he voted with the Republicans "because I think it's really important for Congress to clean up the relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions."
In desperation, the Democrats countered with their own resolution — instructing the ethics committee to declare whether they were investigating the link between earmarks and campaign donations. That's just what the committee did Thursday.
The Democratic majority leader, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said in a statement how pleased he was that the ethics committee "responded so quickly" to the Democrats' call for a public statement.
"As I have stated consistently, the committee can and must review substantive ethics allegations that are raised in the public sphere, including those made about the PMA Group," he said.
He never mentioned the leadership's work to block the Republican attempts to get the investigation started.