Ohio Gov. Bob Taft is hardly the only politician these days to be hit by scandal. He’s just the only one to admit he was wrong.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is fighting ethics charges. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is too. And two federal lawmakers are under investigation over financial dealings.
“There does seem to be a spate of scandals these days,” said Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity. “It seems to be heavier than it’s been for a while.”
For DeLay, it is fund-raising practices and lobbyist-financed travel that are under scrutiny. Schwarzenegger dropped out of a lucrative deal with a publishing company when he was criticized for possible conflicts of interest.
Impeachment in Ohio?
Both of those powerful Republicans are still standing. And Taft, a fellow Republican who pleaded no contest Thursday to misdemeanor ethics violations for failing to report golf outings and other gifts, vows to serve out the remaining 16 months of his term.
Democrats are studying whether to pursue Taft’s impeachment, a daunting task to get through the GOP-run state legislature.
More serious problems face two members of Congress, one from each party.
Federal agents raided the New Orleans and Washington homes of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., this month amid questions about his financial dealings with a high-tech startup company. An executive said he thought Jefferson was squeezing him for money and called the FBI. Agents reportedly found cash in a freezer at one of the congressman’s homes.
Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., is under investigation for financial dealings with a friend who runs a defense company. The friend bought Cunningham’s house for $1.7 million and somehow took a $700,000 loss when he resold it in San Diego’s sizzling real estate market.
Cunningham had abandoned plans to run for re-election, and the government wants to seize the new $2.6 million home he bought with proceeds from the first sale.
Money the common thread
What’s the common thread in this summer of scandal? Money.
“Each of these cases is a bit different, but they all come down to the intersection of capitalism and democracy and being lavishly wooed and courted by powerful interests and being susceptible to those interests,” said Lewis, now president of the Fund for Independence in Journalism.
What the current spate of scandals lacks — unlike the spectacular fall of New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey last summer — is a sexual component.
McGreevey resigned after admitting he had engaged in a gay, extramarital affair and had put his lover in a top government job for which he seemed unqualified. Blaring headlines and sensational stories preceded his departure.
Polls show Congress’ approval rating at the lowest level in a decade. An AP-Ipsos poll taken Aug. 1-3 found just 33 percent of respondents approved of the job that lawmakers are doing.
But Congress’ low ratings don’t seem to have much to do with scandal, said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. “The public’s low ratings for the Congress this year has more to do with their arguing with one another” over things like changing Senate rules to block filibusters of judicial nominees, he said.
“These scandals don’t have very much impact on public opinion because opinion couldn’t be much worse,” said Paul Light, a professor of political science at New York University. “They just reinforce what the public already believes.”
A political backlash?
Still, there’s been a clear uptick in cases of politicians under investigation by authorities. Now, the question is whether there will be much political backlash.
In Taft’s Ohio, there are warning signs of public unrest over the scandal involving gifts and another involving the state’s questionable investment of workers’ compensation funds in rare coins.
Republicans narrowly held on to a House seat in a heavily GOP district in a special election this month. Democrats sense the chance to reclaim the Ohio governorship next year for the first time in four terms.
For Congress, it’s not clear how the drip, drip, drip of scandal revelations will play in midterm elections. With a prominent Democrat — Louisiana’s Jefferson — under investigation, it becomes more difficult for his party to use scandal against Republicans.
Ethics watchdog Lewis sees a worsening problem, one that won’t improve until lawmakers do a better job of policing themselves.
“There is a problem here and it’s a substantial problem, and there seems to be very little will by politicians at most levels to face it head on,” he said.