Massa resigns; Democrats' ethical lapses could threaten hold on power

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Saturday, March 6, 2010

Congressional Democrats reclaimed control of Congress in 2006 by pledging to "drain the swamp" after Republican ethics scandals rocked Capitol Hill. Now, a series of controversies involving Democratic members has robbed the party of its claim to hold the higher moral ground -- and could threaten its hold on power in this fall's elections.

The announcement Friday by freshman Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) that he will resign amid allegations that he sexually harassed a male staffer capped a week of near-daily ethical distractions for a party struggling to pass heath-care reform legislation.

A few days earlier, congressional Democrats forced Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) to step down temporarily from the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee. The House ethics committee had admonished Rangel for accepting corporate-sponsored trips, and he remains under investigation for other alleged violations.

Five other Democratic lawmakers were cleared last week by the House ethics committee. They had been investigated for allegedly steering no-bid contracts in exchange for campaign contributions. One of them, Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), remains under investigation by the Justice Department.

The controversies have increased Republican attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who pledged in 2006 that Democrats would run "the most ethical Congress in history."

Although the Democrats' troubles are not as severe, some Republicans have said the controversies resemble those of the GOP when it held the majority in 2006. Connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff led to resignations and even prison. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) resigned his post and later his seat amid numerous ethical scandals, and Rep. Mark Foley (Fla.) resigned after sending sexually suggestive Internet messages to congressional pages.

Exit polls showed that those ethics controversies played a role in the GOP losing control of Congress.

"Ethics really matter to voters; they matter almost more than any other issue," said Melanie Sloane, head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan group. "And you would think that both parties would know that, because Democrats lost in 1994 and Republicans lost in 2006 because of it."

Massa said he would step down from his Upstate New York seat Monday in part to stop an ethics investigation that he said "would tear my family and my staff apart." He had previously said he would step down at the end of the year for health reasons after a recurrence of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"There is no doubt in my mind that I did in fact, use language in the privacy of my own home and in my inner office that, after 24 years in the Navy, might make a Chief Petty Officer feel uncomfortable," Massa said in a statement Friday on his Web site. "In fact, there is no doubt that this Ethics issue is my fault and mine alone."

"It's not that I can fight or beat these allegations, I'm guilty," Massa told his Washington and campaign staff in a separate statement, which was reported by his hometown newspaper, the Corning Leader.

Congressional Republicans, although not highlighting Massa's situation, said the controversies surrounding Democrats proved the party had done little to change the culture of Washington.

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