By Perry Bacon Jr.
Saturday, March 6, 2010; A01
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.
"Nancy Pelosi's 'most ethical Congress in history' has been reduced to a punch line. Democrats are treading water in the very swamp they promised to drain," said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans.
Pelosi defended Democrats, noting that the party had established an outside committee to investigate allegations against lawmakers. The complaints are then forwarded to the formal ethics committee, which is composed of House members. "I think we have come a long way since I became speaker," she said Thursday.
But the controversies could further complicate Democrats' efforts to keep their majority in a year in which polls show broad dissatisfaction with Congress. Massa's seat could be tough for the Democrats to hold: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the district in the 2008 presidential election.
Rangel stepped aside as a growing number of Democrats running for reelection in competitive races distanced themselves from him.
Republicans have had their own controversies during this Congress, including that of Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), who stepped down from a Senate GOP leadership position in July after admitting an affair with a former campaign staff member. He faces a congressional investigation over his role in finding the husband of his mistress a job.
Even as Republicans revel in the Democrats' problems, GOP members acknowledge that Democrats have time to recover. The Foley scandal emerged in late September 2006, leaving no time for damage control before that year's elections.
"It's like watching the Democratic Party getting a root canal and remembering your own dental surgery," said Ron Bonjean, who was communications director to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) during the 2006 Republican controversies. "What you're seeing is very much like 2006. The biggest difference is we are six months out rather than 30 days."
Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.