Echoes of 1994 With Current Scandals?

By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005; 12:04 PM

Is it 1994 all over again?

Dark and ominous clouds are gathering over the Republican Party these days, with a series of ethical and legal scandals that threaten to further damage a White House and Congress already reeling from a sharp drop in public approval ratings.

Rep. Tom Delay (Tex.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and a top administration official (David Safavian, the White House's top procurement officer) have all been ensnared in highly embarrassing ethics scandals recently.

The latter two scandals touch, in some way or another, on a broadening scandal involving a former top lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who was thoroughly connected among GOP politicians and activists.

For more background:

  • Frist Says He Had No Inside Data On Stock (Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2005)
  • Frist, DeLay Fend Off Probes Into Ethics (ABC News, Sept. 23, 2005)
  • Bush Official Arrested in Corruption Probe (Washington Post, Sept. 20, 2005)
  • On top of all of that, a special prosecutor and grand jury continue to investigate what, if any, role White House officials may have played in the leaking of the name of a covert operative to reporters. And the White House has come under increasing scrutiny, in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, for rampant cronyism in its appointments to top level jobs, including director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and nominees for head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deputy attorney general, among others. (Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times comments on this here.)

    In many ways, today's scandals echo many of the issues that Democrats ran into prior to the GOP revolution of 1994. Corruption and scandal engulfed Democrats, leading to the demise of the party that year. Dan Rostenkowski was indicted on corruption charges and later resigned his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. Five years earlier, House Speaker Jim Wright resigned in an ethics scandal. That same year, another powerful congressman, Tony Coehlo of California, resigned amid allegations that he received special treatment in a junk bond deal.

    "This reminds me of 1994," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. "The House Democrats had been in control for 40 years and were incredibly arrogant and had all kind of ethical scandals ... the House bank scandal, the Rostenkowski scandal. Jim Wright.

    "[The Democrats] lost in large part because of the ethics problems. Now only 11 years later, we have the Republicans acting just like the Democrats and maybe even worse. Worse yet, they're acting like nobody cares even though their approval rating is only 36 percent, a low comparable to the '94 approval rating [of the Democrat-controlled Congress]."

    The GOP scandals come just a year before crucial midterm elections that could decide whether the party will continue its dominance in Washington or fold under the stain of ethical humiliation as Democrats did in 1994.

    On Monday, CREW filed an ethics complaint in the Senate against Frist, hoping to spark an investigation there, as the SEC and Justice Department simultaneously look into whether Frist illegally unloaded stock in HCA Inc., the hospital operating company founded by his family. In the Senate, unlike the House, outside groups or individuals can file ethics complaints without a member sponsor. But the Senate almost never bothers to seriously investigate its members.

    On the House side, where ethics complaints have been filed against Delay for his associations with Abramoff, the Ethics Committee has been virtually shut down for months in a power struggle between the parties over rules.

    But even though much of the public is unaware of names like Frist, Delay and Abramoff, and may fail to understand the intricacies of Washington politics, the sense of a general theme of corruption may be setting in.

    "If there is really any evidence of insider trading, then he's in very serious trouble, and so is his party,'' Gary Jacobson, professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego, told Bloomberg News in reference to the Frist allegations. "It adds another brick to Democrats' argument that Republicans are corrupt.''

    And Marshall Whittman, a former conservative activist who now works for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said of Frist: "The last thing you needed was a Martha Stewart problem. He doesn't even have a good clothing line or a popular television show."

    This week, CREW also released its list of "13 most corrupt" members of Congress. On the list, were 11 Republicans, including Frist, Delay, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and House Majority Whip Roy Blount (Mo.) and two Democrats, Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Bill Jefferson (La.).

    While CREW bills itself as nonpartisan, some conservatives have complained that CREW is anything but, noting among other things that Sloan worked in the past as a Democratic staffer in the House.

    Sloan insists that her group is tough on Democrats, but argues that list includes more Republicans because they're the ones holding all the power right now, in better positions to abuse their authority, and should be held to a higher standard -- as Democrats were when they were in power.

    Whatever the case, this much is certain: President Bush's approval rating is down near 40 percent in most major national polls, and the GOP Congress's approval rating is even lower. It is always difficult going into the sixth year midterm election. The president's party typically loses a large number of seats in those elections. To ensure that doesn't happen next year, the party needs to improve its performance and standing in the public's eyes. That effort will be complicated as these ethical and legal issues play out in coming months.

    "It may not cost the Republicans any seats directly, but it's something they don't need right now," said John J. Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who once worked as a research analyst for House Republicans. "They've got plenty of problems as it is."

    Reporting from the Associated Press was used in this column.

    © 2005 The Washington Post Company