Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y.), Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have something in common: All four lawmakers are reportedly facing scrutiny either by the Justice Department, the House Ethics Committee or both.
And they share something else: None so far has been punished or ostracized by the leadership.
For all the talk of “zero tolerance” and “draining the swamp,” both Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have generally been reticent to take public action against lawmakers suspected or accused of transgressions.
Like the people they represent, members of Congress are considered innocent until proven guilty. But the actual bar for meting out internal punishment is far less clear; some lawmakers have been slapped by their leaders at the first hint of scandal, while others have been allowed to hang onto their jobs and their committee assignments long after the emergence of allegations against them.
“I think there’s a pretty high bar,” said Steve Elmendorf, who served as top aide to former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). “I think there’s a pretty consistent standard that you have to have something more than a newspaper story saying somebody is the subject of an investigation.”
Pelosi and Boehner’s offices declined to comment, but House Republicans and Democrats have nearly identical internal rules on this subject: Any party leader or chairman of a committee or subcommittee who is indicted on felony charges must temporarily step down from his or her post. In practice, lawmakers rarely make it that far, and the rules are silent about how to handle rank-and-file committee members.
“It depends on what kind of political heat the leadership and their colleagues will get over an investigation,” said Ron Bonjean, the former spokesman for then-speaker Dennis J. Hastert (R-Ill.) and then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
In 2006, Pelosi led an effort to force Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) to surrender his seat on the Ways and Means Committee. The move came a month after the FBI mounted a high-profile raid on Jefferson’s congressional office and disclosed that $90,000 in cash had been found in his home freezer, but a full year before the Louisianan was indicted and three years before he was convicted on corruption charges.
“This isn’t about proof in a court of law. This is about an ethical standard,” Pelosi said at the time.
The Democratic Caucus voted to take the seat away after Jefferson refused to step down voluntarily, and the embattled lawmaker complained that there was no clear guideline for when a member under scrutiny was supposed to give up his post.
Similarly, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) surrendered his position on the Appropriations Committee in 2007 at the urging of GOP leaders, soon after the FBI raided his house as part of the Jack Abramoff corruption investigation. But unlike Jefferson, Doolittle was never indicted.
The day after Doolittle left the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) — also with a push from Boehner — stepped down from the Intelligence Committee after the FBI raided his family’s insurance business. He was indicted in 2008, and is still awaiting trial amid legal wrangling over his case.
In March 2010, after being admonished by the Ethics Committee for taking corporate-funded Caribbean trips, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) stepped down as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee under pressure from his fellow Democrats and threats from Republicans to bring the issue to the House floor. Rangel was convicted in an ethics panel trial and censured by the full House nine months later.
Rangel, Jefferson, Doolittle and Renzi were all accused of improprieties related to their committee work. But that isn’t always the case.
Buchanan, for example, sits on the Ways and Means Committee, which has little to do with allegations that companies he owned reimbursed employees for contributing to his campaign and that he filed incomplete financial disclosure forms. The New York Times reported last month that his case is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation in Tampa.
Grimm, for his part, faces federal scrutiny for actions that took place before he was elected — allegedly taking illegal campaign donations from supporters of a New York rabbi. Meeks has been probed by a grand jury and the House Ethics Committee for failing to disclose a loan from a Queens businessman.
But Waters, the subject of a long and controversial Ethics panel investigation for allegedly helping steer federal aid to a bank in which her husband held a financial stake, remains in a directly relevant post as the second-ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. And Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), chairman of that panel, faces an Office of Congressional Ethics inquiry into whether he violated insider-trading laws.
Perhaps the criteria for punishing members is like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” In fact, a whole different set of standards appears to apply when scandals are sexual in nature.
In 2008, Rep. Vito J. Fossella (R-N.Y.) heeded GOP leaders’ wishes by not running for reelection after he was charged with drunken driving and admitted fathering a child with his mistress.
In 2010, Rep. Mark Souder
(R-Ind.) quit at Boehner’s urging following the revelation that he’d had an extramarital affair with an aide. And Rep. Eric Massa
(D-N.Y.) stepped down after being accused of harassing male staffers.
Early last year, Rep. Christopher Lee (R-N.Y.) resigned within hours of a media report that the married lawmaker had sought female companions on Craigslist. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) kept his job for about three weeks after the media reported on his use of Twitter to send suggestive photographs, and a few days after Pelosi publicly demanded that he step down.
“Every case is different and depends on the political moment you’re in, and the member,” Elmendorf said. “What’s the history of the leadership with the member? Are you willing to give them the benefit of the doubt?”
To read previous In Session columns, go to postpolitics.com.