The 'Culture of Corruption' in Congress

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The GOP tried to use Democrats' ethics problems as an issue in the 1990 elections. hide caption

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Rep. Robert Menendez has been the most aggressive of those hoping to win a New Jersey appointment to the Senate. hide caption

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His comments on Iraq have rekindled the national debate on the war. hide caption

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So now it's Duke Cunningham.

When Lewis Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, is under indictment; when the most powerful member of the House, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), is forced to resign his leadership post following an indictment; when his former spokesman, Michael Scanlon, pleads guilty to bribery charges and agrees to cooperate in the investigation of an associate, top Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff (and one which could also bring down Rep. Robert Ney (R-OH), chairman of the House Administration Committee); when Bill Frist (R-TN), the Senate majority leader, is under scrutiny by the Security and Exchange Commission; and when Karl Rove, the president's top political aide, is still under investigation by a special prosecutor, the guilty plea and subsequent resignation of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) on bribery charges just adds to the party's misery.

I'm well aware that the above paragraph looks like it was written by the Democratic National Committee, and knowing some of my regular correspondents, I will be accused of parroting the DNC line. I am also aware that, by definition, an indictment is not a conviction, and being under investigation is not being under indictment. So many of the above fellows could very well be exonerated. But with President Bush's polling numbers at all-time lows and Americans still skeptical about the prospects for a satisfactory result in Iraq, the last thing the GOP needs right now is another front-page ethics scandal. And yet that's exactly what they got with the Cunningham saga — an eight-term congressman who admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. The bigger question, of course, is whether voters will care in 2006.

It may very well be true, as Republicans insist, that Duke Cunningham's crimes were personal in nature, and that voters are not going to look at Cunningham's greed and transfer it to other Republican candidates. Some Republicans also point to Democratic transgressions: Kevin Shelley, the former secretary of state of California, resigned earlier this year in the middle of investigations into alleged misuse of public funds; ex-Rep. Frank Ballance (D-NC) is about to go to prison for directing public money to his family and himself; and an FBI sting operation is thought to involve Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA). The Republicans insist that if they're to be made accountable for Cunningham and Co., then Democrats should bear the burden for their sins.

The problem with this argument is that it ignores a bigger truth: Frank Ballance and Bill Jefferson are small fry compared to the Republicans we are talking about. And more important: Republicans are the party in power. They took over Congress in the 1994 elections with the promise to end what they saw as decades of Democratic arrogance and corruption. George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 running as the anti-Clinton, promising to restore honor in the White House. And now Republicans are watching Democrats try and turn the tables on them. I still don't have a sense yet in my gut that what Democrats call a "culture of corruption" will lead to the overthrow of GOP congressional rule next year. In the 1990 midterm elections, for example, Republicans tried to nationalize the ethical shortcomings of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-CA), both of whom resigned from Congress in 1989, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who hung on despite an official House reprimand, but they failed; Democrats, in fact, gained House seats that year. Comparing 1990 to today, of course, is not exactly valid; Republican woes are far greater in scope than simply a handful of lawmakers who lost their way.

On to the questions!

Q: I don't know why everyone is making such a big deal of the governor results in Virginia and New Jersey. Republicans also lost them in 2001, when Bush's popularity was skyrocketing, so that proves it has nothing to do with the president and everything to do with local issues. And besides, after they lost those two elections in 2001, Republicans came back in 2002 to recapture the Senate and add seats in the House. -– Karen Whitcomb, Alexandria, Va.

A: I agree that the twin defeats don't necessarily portend bad things to come for the GOP, and as you point out, the results of the 2001 elections had no bearing on what happened in 2002. But given the bad things going on in Republicanville — low Bush numbers, an unpopular war, ethics questions about top White House aides and congressional leaders (see rant above) — losing two out of two gubernatorial elections doesn't help. Here's another way of looking at it: The last time Republicans lost back-to-back governor races in Virginia and New Jersey was back in 1961 and 1965.

Q: As someone who hails from the Garden State, I'm curious as to why you say that the New Jersey governorship is the most powerful in the country. – Tim Schlittner, Maryland press secretary for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Washington, D.C.

A: The main reason is that the governor is the only official elected statewide in New Jersey (aside from the two U.S. senators). Thus, the governor appoints every other statewide official – secretary of state, treasurer, etc. He or she has far-reaching budget authority and veto power. Somebody like acting Gov. Richard Codey is especially powerful, because he is also the president of the state Senate (see below for explanation).

Voters last month, however, approved the creation of a lieutenant governor. Once that person is elected, the power of the governor of N.J. will be somewhat lessened.

Q: In your Nov. 16 column, you wrote about the four incumbent senators since World War II who were elected governor. The fifth, Jon Corzine (D-NJ), will soon name his successor in the Senate. Were the other four able to appoint their successors, and how did they do in the next election? –- Paul Newton, Minneapolis, Minn.

A: It's a mixed bag. One appointee was elected, one was defeated, one decided not to run, and in the fourth state there was no appointee. So there's no lesson to be learned about the fate of these types of appointed senators. Here's the lineup:

Price Daniel (D-TX), elected governor in 1956. He resigned his Senate seat Jan. 14, 1957. Daniel did not, however, name his successor. That job fell to Daniel's predecessor, outgoing Gov. Allan Shivers (D), who appointed William Blakley (D) to the Senate. Blakley did not run in the 1957 special election.

Pete Wilson (R-CA), elected governor in 1990. He resigned his Senate seat Jan. 7, 1991 and was sworn in as governor on the same day. He appointed John Seymour (R) as his successor Jan. 10, 1991. Seymour was defeated a year later in a special election by Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID), elected governor in 1998. Kempthorne was elected governor at the conclusion of his Senate term, so there was no appointment. Mike Crapo (R) was elected to succeed Kempthorne in the same '98 election.

Frank Murkowski (R-AK), elected governor in 2002. He resigned his Senate seat Dec. 2, 2002 and was sworn in as governor on the same day. He appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, as his successor Dec. 20, 2002. She won the 2004 election over Democrat Tony Knowles, the state's former governor.

"What Exit" Strategy: Corzine won't be sworn in as governor until Jan. 17, but he is said to be within days of announcing his Senate successor. Rep. Robert Menendez has been campaigning the longest for the post; in fact, he's been talking about running longer than Corzine has been in the Senate. He's raised a ton of money and has the backing of national Hispanic groups. Others in the mix are fellow House members Rob Andrews and Frank Pallone; all three campaigned hard for Corzine and have considerable financial resources. Rep. Rush Holt is also thought to be on the list, and some reports include Reps. Donald Payne and Bill Pascrell as well. Until recently, an interesting possibility had been Richard Codey. As president of the state Senate, Codey became acting governor when incumbent Democrat James McGreevey resigned following a sex/ethics scandal. Codey wanted to stay on as governor but had no chance against the Corzine juggernaut, and he gracefully stepped aside, sparing the party a primary battle. I've long thought that Codey, who always expressed reluctance of coming to Washington, would be the best and easiest choice, but last week he took himself out of the running.

Now the new flavor is state Sen. Nia Gill. Gill is an African American woman in a state that has never sent a black or a woman to the Senate. She has less experience in office than most of the other hopefuls. (For the record, Charles Markey of Jersey City, N.J., sent us a note on Nov. 10, predicting it would be Gill.) Choosing Gill would be intriguing for a million reasons, one of them being the not-so-secret belief that Corzine is ultimately dreaming about the White House, and naming an African American woman to the Senate could be a plus. For the record, whomever Corzine picks will have to run for a full term next year, when the Republicans will likely put up state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., son of the popular former governor. The GOP hasn't won a Senate seat in Joisey since 1972.

Murtha Washington: Rep. John Murtha's call last month for a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq — and my profile of the Pennsylvania Democrat on NPR.org (link below) — elicited a ton of emails. Stafford Le Claire of Pittsburgh, Pa., who served in the Navy from 1963-67, thanks Murtha "for standing up and telling it like it is — and may I add, like it was in Vietnam!"

Karen Manrique of Lansing, Mich., writes, "I hope and pray members of Congress get behind Murtha. The path the U.S. is on is wrong. We need to develop a withdrawal plan and implement it as quickly and safely as possible. They do not want us in their country. We are targets for violence and are losing precious lives every day."

Similarly, this from Sara Olsen of San Francisco: "I'm glad to see a Democrat exhibiting courage and leadership (it's been a long time!). Having this man say he thinks this is better than staying in a vain attempt to 'stabilize' Iraq means a lot to me. If his highly informed assessment is that staying is the wrong way to help, I believe him. Let's get behind Murtha and get out."

John Crookston , who is from Murtha's hometown of Johnstown, notes, "What Congressman Murtha is doing reminds me of the stories in JFK's Profiles in Courage. I truly believe Jack Murtha is someone who tells it like it is. It makes me wonder why Colin Powell remains silent."

Eric Bone of Alexandria, Va., was upset with the resulting GOP campaign to discredit Murtha, saying, "These critics are not content to argue against his position on Iraq policy, nor are they content to criticize his reasoning. Instead, he must be punished for his audacity by personal attacks on his character, being called 'cowardly' and 'irresponsible.' It is further proof that there is no room for public discussion of the war. Anyone who criticizes the Bush administration on this issue will not receive a counter-argument. Instead, they will become the target of coordinated character assassination."

Robert Firment of Latrobe, Pa., was also angered by the attacks on Murtha: "I suggest we applaud John Murtha and join his quest for accountability. Let's all start questioning and holding accountable our leaders. Because on its worst day America is better than the best day anywhere else on the planet."

And Joan Matyshak of St. Louis, Mo., urges Murtha not to "lose heart": "Many, many people thought no one would dare tell the emperor he was naked. This is a bankrupt policy, formed by ignorant men without appreciation for the civil war nature of this conflict. Please continue speaking out."

Needless to say, not everyone agreed. Byron Miller of Raleigh, N.C., wants to know "why is it that Murtha's comments about an Iraq withdrawal were so trumpeted but his recommendation of an area 'strike force' to remain, in addition to his view that the administration had not deliberately misled anyone prior to the war, were barely whispered?"

Jack Griffis of Las Vegas says Murtha "has now proven himself to be no more than any other lawmaker who has joined the circus of military experts. And as for his quote — 'I like guys who've never been there to criticize us who've been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there, and send people to war' — well, I like it when a know-nothing uses the oldest 'saw' in the book. If Murtha is interested, I will send him a long, long list of people who never served in the military and yet were great, great political leaders, or a list of those who served in the military who know nothing about anything."

On the same thought, Evan Whitfield of Washington, D.C. writes, "If Bush and Cheney are to be dismissed for sending troops to war because they themselves didn't serve, should we now congratulate Lyndon Johnson for sending 500,000 troops to Vietnam — where 60,000 died — because LBJ served in World War II?"

Finally, Horace Hill especially didn't care for my Murtha profile. "Come on Ken, get over it. Try fair and balanced news. Bush-bashing is really getting old to the American people. I can't believe you haven't blamed the common cold on Bush. Instead of NPR — National Public Radio — it should be FLR: Far Left Radio."

Thanks to everyone who wrote. Next week: Bush's role in starting the common cold.

This Day in Political History: The U.S. Senate votes 67-22 to condemn (similar to censure) Wisconsin's Joseph McCarthy for bringing that body "into dishonor and disrepute." (Dec. 2, 1954).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org.

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