Voters Tell Washington that Ethics Matter
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Renee Montagne.
This week, the Gallup Poll says that voters rank corruption as the third most important issue for this fall's election. It ranks behind only Iraq and the war on terror, which may be no surprise to those following the news.
Representative RANDY DUKE CUNNINGHAM (Republican, California): In my life, I have had great joy and great sorrow. And now I know great shame.
Representative TOM DELAY (Republican, Texas): I say goodbye today, Mr. Speaker, with few regrets, no doubts.
Mr. JACK ABRAMOFF (Former Republican Lobbyist): Mr. Chairman, I have no choice but to assert my various Constitutional privileges.
Representative BILL JEFFERSON (Democrat, Louisiana): The punishment is unauthorized, but it also is - and unnecessary - but it also is not right for the folks who I represent.
WERTHEIMER: Those were the voices of Republican Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham the day he pleaded guilty to taking bribes, then former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, resigning under an ethics cloud this spring -lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in January, and Democratic Congressman Bill Jefferson who has not been charged, but whose icebox held $90,000 in cash when the FBI searched his house a year ago.
And we haven't even mentioned this scandal.
Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois; Speaker of the House): I'm deeply sorry this has happened. The bottom line is that we're taking responsibility because ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before, the buck stops here.
WERTHEIMER: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, trying to defuse the online sex scandal that forced Republican Congressman Mark Foley to resign. Congress has certainly had its share of scandal lately. Now, Democrats are racing to capitalize on the corruption issue, and Republicans are looking for a way out.
NPR's Peter Overby has this report.
PETER OVERBY: If you happen to live in a contested Congressional district, you can watch this battle unfold for yourself. In southwestern Indiana, Democratic Sheriff Brad Ellsworth is trying to oust six-term Republican John Hostettler. Ellsworth's current ad says he wants to bring change.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Announcer #1: …change from legislation written by special interests and lobbyists. Change from politicians breaking laws and covering up the worst kind of crimes.
OVERBY: And on Florida's Gold Coast, 13-term Republican E. Clay Shaw is trying to fend off Democratic state legislator Ron Klein by painting him as a tool of special interests.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Announcer #2: Ron Klein can't change Washington. He's already part of the problem.
OVERBY: A few months ago, the corruption issue had burned its bright moment and faded out again. Congressional leaders quietly killed legislation that would have added some transparency to lawmakers' dealings with lobbyists. Voters seemed too jaded even to be disillusioned.
Then came the Foley scandal, adding sex to the mix of money and power corruption, and things haven't let up since. Just in the past week, the House Ethics Committee began taking testimony about Foley. Ohio Republican Bob Ney pleaded guilty in the Abramoff scandal, and a Justice Department ethics probe of Pennsylvania Republican Curt Weldon became public.
On the other side of the aisle, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid was called to account for a complicated land deal in which critics said he shared the profit, but not the risk. John Pitney is a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. He says Democrats couldn't get any traction when the issue was just influence peddling and bribery.
Professor JOHN PITNEY (Political Science, Claremont McKenna College): These are things that most Americans had never experienced in their everyday lives. But now the issue involves a sexual predator, and everybody knows what a sexual a predator is.
OVERBY: At the University of Pennsylvania, political scientist Don Kettl says voters quickly perceived more than just sex in the Foley scandal.
Professor DON KETTL (Political Science, University of Pennsylvania): The sense of hypocrisy of an argument in favor of moral values and then not living up to them in the minds of many voters, but just as important a sense that the Republican leadership was at best asleep at the switch, and at worst complicit in an effort to cover this up for sometime.
OVERBY: And Republican consultant Bill Greener says the mix of scandals is easy for voters to grasp.
Mr. BILL GREENER (Republican Political Consultant): It's the sort of thing that people are comfortable having strong opinions about, as contrasted with maybe some other kinds of political issues like taxes or trade policy and those kinds of things.
OVERBY: Republicans are hammering Harry Reid on his land deal and other questions. But even that may not be redemptive. Many voters don't necessarily know that Reid is a Democrat, but they do know which party controls Washington.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.