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April 25, 2014

Posts in "Scandalous"

April 9, 2014

History Lesson for McAllister: Members Caught Pursuing Staffers Never Survive

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McAllister needs only to look to former Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana to see how Republican leadership deals with members’ affairs with staffers. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rep. Vance McAllister is showing every sign he’s hunkering down in hopes of saving his nascent political life. But recent House history signals that it’s going to be a futile pursuit.

His troubles are unique in one respect — no member in modern history has seen his congressional career beset by scandal so quickly. It was just 137 days from when McAllister was sworn in to represent northeastern Louisiana, the Republican winner of a special election, to the release of grainy security camera footage of him in an 18-second lip lock with someone who is not his wife.

But Melissa Hixon Peacock is not simply a 33-year-old married woman caught canoodling with a 40-year-old congressman. Back when they were making out just before Christmas, and until Tuesday when she left the government payroll (whether voluntarily or not isn’t clear), she was his district scheduler. And that’s what places McAllister in what’s almost assuredly a non-survivable predicament.

In the past eight years, four other men of the House have been exposed for having, or seeming to seek, sexual relationships with congressional aides. None of them stayed in office longer than a couple of weeks.

Several members in the past few decades have (at least for a while) survived their sexual transgressions, substance abuse admissions, financial improprieties or other personal failings. But the punishment for dalliances with staffers has always been a swift political death penalty — no matter whether the behavior was by a Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, consensual or predatory, back home or on the Hill. Full story

March 9, 2014

Issa’s Antics Again Try GOP’s Patience, Complicate Party’s Message

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If Congress can sometimes be fairly compared to the fabled Faber College of “Animal House,” then Darrell Issa is the latest character to get marked for “double secret probation.”

The chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee did what he had to do to minimize the immediate political damage he inflicted on his House GOP colleagues last week. He swallowed his considerable pride and reversed his defiant rhetorical course to apologize to Maryland’s Elijah E. Cummings for peremptorily cutting off the microphone the panel’s senior Democrat was just starting to use, drawing a finger across his throat and turning his back and walking out of their March 5 hearing.

And the Californian made his de minimus mea culpa within 36 hours, so memories of the ugly incident might fade a bit before Congress returns for the new week.

But the disdain stirred up in the Democrats, the annoyance revealed by many Republicans and the dismay expressed by institutionalists in both parties won’t disappear. Footage of the incident quickly went viral, and surely will be revived for the foreseeable future to illustrate stories about heightened partisan tensions, lowered standards of decorum or intensified investigative zealotry at the Capitol.

That is why Issa has assured lasting trouble for himself, especially in his own ranks. For the final nine months of his term-limited time with the Oversight gavel, expect him to be under a very tight leadership leash. Full story

January 22, 2014

The Real ‘American Hustle’: Could Abscam 7 Happen Today?

In a year when the label “worst Congress ever” is being invoked as never before, a movie about the most over-the-top corruption scandal in congressional history is topping the roster of Oscar contenders.

But will that prove to be bad luck, or a bit of good fortune, for the Capitol’s currently dismal reputation?

It’s easier to predict that the success of “American Hustle” will reinforce the public perception of the Hill as a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) den of thieves. But it’s possible, and arguably more appropriate, for the audience of voters to come to a somewhat different conclusion: While the lawmaking system may have become deeply frozen by partisanship during the past three decades, the baseline for congressional morality actually looks to have gotten a bit better since then.

Of course, there remains the expansive and minimally regulated gray area in which campaign contributions cross paths with legislative interests, with the best-connected lobbyists always figuring out ways to enjoy insider access to the lawmakers who matter most. And a dozen or more allegations against members, most of them relatively petty, are moving through the ethics process at any time. But only twice in the past decade (Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham of California in 2005 and Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana in 2009) have members been convicted for taking straight-up bribes.

There’s a persuasive argument to be made that corruption at the Capitol has decreased because sunshine on lawmaker behavior has increased. Self-policing by Congress, though improved a bit in recent years, is only partly responsible. Sharing the credit are investigative journalists, government watchdog groups, the new monitors of social media — and also the old-line purveyors of the popular culture.

So the film’s director, David O. Russell, should be credited with performing a valuable, if unintended, public service, along with spinning a terrifically entertaining and financially successful caper yarn. (It has been nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. Already the winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy and the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Ensemble prize, “Hustle” has taken in $117 million after six weekends in theaters.) Full story

January 10, 2014

An Ethics Conflict Avoidance Period?

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Biggert was named to the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This week’s belated appointment of two new board members for the Office of Congressional Ethics suggests the independent watchdog agency is approaching the sixth anniversary of its creation with a fading shroud of controversy.

Judy Biggert, a Republican member of the House Ethics Committee during a particularly charged period, from 2001 through 2006, was Speaker John A. Boehner’s pick for the GOP opening. Biggert, who lost her bid in 2012 for an eighth term representing the Chicago suburbs, played a central role in the investigations and admonitions that led to the eventual downfall of her own majority leader, Tom DeLay, and in the investigation that found her leadership inattentive to House pages’ allegations of sexual advances by a GOP colleague, Florida’s Mark Foley.

Belinda Pinckney, an executive consultant and retired brigadier general, was chosen by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for the Democratic opening. Pinckney’s final military job, from 2007 to 2010, was as the Army’s top diversity officer. Earlier in her career, she was on the Pentagon’s team of liaisons to the Appropriations committees.

They are replacing a pair of former House members, Minnesota Republican Bill Frenzel and California Democrat Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who had been on the board since the start but had been due for replacements for the past year. Five other original members remain, and look to do so for at least another year.

The office was created in 2008 to fulfill a Pelosi campaign promise — to “drain the swamp of corruption” at the Capitol — that was made on the way to winning House control in the previous midterm. The premise was to reduce the perception that the foxes were guarding the hen house in the House’s ethics process. So they turned some of the process over to an independent, bipartisan and knowledgeable panel, which would take on the initial job of reviewing and investigating allegations of misconduct by members and staff — and referring credible matters within three months to the Ethics Committee. That House panel still retains sole power to decide if the chamber’s rules or federal laws were broken and to propose sanctions by the full House. (There is no similar system in the Senate.) Full story

September 19, 2013

DeLay Wins Appeal of Charges That Forced Him From GOP Pinnacle

Tom DeLay was preparing to make a triumphant return to the Capitol this afternoon, hours after his political corruption conviction was overturned by a Texas appeals court.

The former House majority leader is in town this week by coincidence, and was already planning to have lunch with his former Republican colleagues in the Texas delegation.

The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals decided 2-1 this morning to set aside DeLay’s 2010 conviction for money laundering and declare him acquitted. The majority said the evidence in the case was “legally insufficient to sustain DeLay’s convictions.”

The charges were connected to an alleged scheme to illegally funnel corporate money to state legislative candidates in 2002, when DeLay was at the height of his congressional influence as “The Hammer.” He sought to expand his hold on power by engineering a GOP takeover of the state House in Austin, which would then lead to a more Republican-friendly reconfiguring of the state’s congressional map.

The effort worked in the short term; the GOP gained six seats in Texas under the reconfigured boundaries in 2004. But DeLay’s hold on power began to unravel right after that election cycle.

He was admonished later that year by the House Ethics Committee for an array of transgressions, weakening his ability to combine political intensity and political persuasiveness to get what he wanted. The next year he was forced to step aside as majority leader after his indictment on the money laundering charges, and in early 2006 he resigned altogether after one of his closest allies on K Street, Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty and started cooperating with a federal investigation of lawmaker-lobbyist relationships.

It was DeLay’s departure that created the opening that allowed John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to return to the leadership.

DeLay had been sentenced to three years in state prison but remained free while he mounted a vigorous appeal, which included successfully getting one of the original judges assigned to hear the appeal removed because of anti-Republican sentiments she’d expressed.

In July 2012, DeLay filed paperwork to lobby for Argus Global LLC on sex-trafficking issues, according to records tracked by our sister blog, Political MoneyLine.

September 15, 2013

Bachmann’s Cautionary Tale: Sweat the Small Stuff, or Pay the Price

Few members of Congress sustain higher name identification than Michele Bachmann, even though her shooting-star prominence has had almost nothing to do with her work as the representative from the Twin Cities suburbs.

But now, in the self-imposed twilight of her time in the House, she looks to be shaping the end of her career in a way she never intended — a way that could not have been predicted when she burst so bombastically onto the scene six years ago — as the latest cautionary tale about the danger of deciding there’s no need to sweat the details of political life.

Once Bachmann announced in May that she wouldn’t make an assuredly difficult run for a fifth term, the Beltway fact-checkers decided not to put much effort into refuting her conspiratorial histrionics or conservative flights of fancy. House Republican leadership began shifting its view of her from a major management challenge to a tangential irritant. The tea party colleagues she once purported to direct scattered in search of different leadership.

But the watchdogs of congressional behavior, campaign finance regulations and federal criminal law haven’t dropped the Minnesotan from their sights. And, in the past two weeks, they’ve signaled they have found someone who was, at best, inappropriately ignorant about improper activity by the people who ran her boom-to-bust-in-five-months quest for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Full story

May 22, 2013

Lois Lerner’s Gambit Has Guaranteed She’ll Talk — Some Day

Room 2154 of the Rayburn Building was the scene of the most publicly electrifying, if not illuminating, moment so far in the IRS controversy — a widely televised staging of a recurring set piece in American political theater.

By the time Lois Lerner was sworn in at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday, a clattering symphony of cameras at her feet, everyone in the room knew the essence of what was coming next. She had served notice the night before that she would invoke her constitutional right against self-incrimination and decline to answer questions about her work as head of the IRS office that decides which organizations deserve tax-exempt status. That would be the office that applied an especially strict review to tea party and other conservative groups.

But before taking the Fifth, she broke from the playbook ever so briefly. “I have not done anything wrong,” Lerner read from a paper before her. “I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other committee.”

That categorical 17-second statement was played over and over on cable news for hours, allowing Lerner to control the IRS scandal headline of the day. But sneaking it into the script also infuriated her congressional inquisitors, who are sure to make a fevered search for contradictory evidence an essential part of the committee’s coming months of tax agency oversight. Full story

Weiner Launches His Comeback Bid in NYC Mayor’s Race

This year’s second big comeback bid by a disgraced ex-congressman got underway at midnight, and it came in a manner the New York tabloids might describe as “Weiner’s soft launch.”

Anthony Weiner — who resigned his House seat in disgrace 23 months ago, after his sexting and his lies were exposed — declared his candidacy for mayor of New York in a video posted on You Tube without any advance notice.

“Look, I’ve made some big mistakes and I know I let a lot of people down, but I have also learned some tough lessons,” Weiner says in the 2 minute spot. “I am running for mayor because I have been fighting for the middle class and those struggling to make it my entire life, and I hope I get a second chance to work for you.”

The announcement was much less overtly contrite, and alluded to his downfall much more obliquely, than the approach his former colleague Mark Sanford took this spring. In Sanford’s successful campaign to reclaim his former House seat, he repeatedly sought his constituents’ forgiveness for using state money to travel overseas for an extramarital affair, and lying about it, when he was the Republican governor of South Carolina. Full story

May 20, 2013

IRS ‘Scandal’ Touches More Nerves as Sign of Incompetence

The second congressional hearing on the IRS scandal, scheduled for Tuesday morning in the Senate Finance Committee, may offer solid clues about which of two possible ways the Republicans plan to play the imbroglio.

One choice is to pursue the matter as a potential scandal. The other is to portray the situation as emblematic of Big Government’s fundamental flaws.

The latter claim is what has created the ripest opening — if not the most obvious one to party fire breathers — to reverse the electoral fortunes of the embattled GOP. If not driven by malevolence, the only other viable reason for the IRS’ actions would be incompetence.

Concentrating on that second approach looks like the way many senior Republicans want to go. That’s in part because they’ve been given a wide opening to head in that direction by President Barack Obama himself and in part because they see the strategy as having a very high likelihood of underscoring their core criticisms about the failings of the administration and the ideology it espouses. Full story

May 15, 2013

Obama Gets Bitter Taste of History’s Second-Term Curse

Has Barack Obama already caught a terminal case of the second-term curse? Still too early to diagnose.

But such an affliction will inevitably suffocate all his remaining legislative aspirations. The evidence from the past four decades leads to an unavoidable prognosis: The man’s got a little more than a year left, at most.

Each of the four previous re-elected presidents saw their juice on Capitol Hill run out well before their second-term congressional midterms. And there’s no empirical reason to believe that Obama will be able to make his political capital last any longer in this divided and divisive Congress.

Richard M. Nixon was able to keep alive his top priorities, which were about taking more power for himself at the expense of Congress, for only four months in 1973. Then the Senate Watergate Committee convened, galvanizing the nation’s interest in what the president knew and how long he’d known it.

Ronald Reagan decided to make a tax code overhaul the top domestic priority of his second term in May 1985, and he was able to revel in the climatic votes a year later. After that, the Iran-Contra scandal is all the historians have to say about the remainder of his presidency.

Bill Clinton pushed a landmark, bipartisan agreement on plans for balancing the federal budget through Congress in August 1997 and got to work on a typically disparate collection of other priorities. Traction for virtually all of them disappeared for good the following January, after the nation learned Monica Lewinsky’s name.

George W. Bush was about to see his choice elevated to chief justice of the United States on Labor Day 2005, and there was still a fighting chance Congress would permit his top second-term wish of getting some Social Security savings invested in the markets. His political capital evaporated immediately thereafter, when fury at his arms-length response to Hurricane Katrina combined with imploding support for the Iraq War.

For Obama, the lessons of his recent two-term predecessors is this: Even if he succeeds in weathering the current scandalous-sounding triple whammy — the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the seizing of journalists’ phone records, the shifting story about the Libya consulate attack — the president will be in the clear no longer than Election Day 2014. By then his legislative goals will have either been met or sidetracked for the duration. Full story

IRS Scandal Is a ‘Crime’ in Boehner-McConnell Echo Chamber

The three-ingredient stew pot of Obama administration controversy got a personal stir this morning from the top Republicans in Congress — both of whom suggested that federal crimes were committed when the IRS targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Separate statements by Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, just a few minutes apart, suggested a coordinated decision by the GOP leadership to turn up the political pressure on the president as high as possible. It may serve to prevent the White House from shaping the narrative as one in which thorough punitive follow-through will follow the exposure of bad behavior.

“Now, my question isn’t about who’s going to resign. My question is who’s going to jail over this scandal?” Boehner told reporters after the first of two GOP caucus meetings today. “Someone made a conscious decision to harass and hold up these requests for tax exempt status. I think we need to know who they are, whether they violated the law. Clearly someone violated the law.”

McConnell was just one notch less emphatic in his suspicions. “If there was an effort to bring the power of the federal government to bear on those that the administration disagreed with in the middle of a heated national election, it actually could be criminal and we’re determined to get the answers,” he said on the floor. Full story

May 14, 2013

IRS Mess Exposes Split Between What Congress Will Say and What It Will Do

It took four days in Congress for predictably unanimous rhetorical outrage at the IRS to devolve into a predictably partisan disagreement over the proper legislative response.

There may be 100 senators willing to vote to excoriate the agency for subjecting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status to an intensified level of investigation. But there’s no sign that a necessary 60 of them will get behind meaningful legislation to make sure that positioning anywhere along the ideological spectrum is never the interest of the tax auditors again.

Congress will manage no more than a symbolic swipe at the symptoms of the more fundamental problem, which is the currently vague and confusing state of campaign finance law. Full story

May 13, 2013

IRS Has No Friends in Washington

President Barack Obama moved tentatively today to join the bubbling outrage at the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, although he said he didn’t have sufficient reason yet to either condemn outright or apologize directly for the tax agency’s behavior.

“If it turns out that IRS employees acted in anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way, then that is outrageous,” Obama said in a mid-morning news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron.

But he also said he would wait to say more about the revelations — that groups with conservative-sounding names were singled out for heightened IRS scrutiny before being granted tax-exempt status during the 2012 campaign — until Treasury’s inspector general for taxes concludes whether the behavior was politically motivated or otherwise broke regulatory rules.

That yearlong investigation is done and the recommendations are expected to be made public this week, maybe as soon as today.

Since the story broke May 10, congressional anger has come mainly from Republicans, who are falling all over themselves promising all manner of investigations, hearings and legislation. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for example, called today for the ouster of the IRS commissioner. Full story

May 8, 2013

Mark Sanford Arrives Late to His Own Capitol Hill Roast

sanford050713 445x295 Mark Sanford Arrives Late to His Own Capitol Hill Roast

(Mary Ann Chastain/Getty Images)

No special-election winner in modern congressional history has had to put off a celebratory swearing-in because of a pending court date.

It’s just one more reminder of why no special-election winner in modern congressional history will arrive in Washington with less good will from his new colleagues than Mark Sanford. Which is why it’s not surprising that he won’t actually come back to Congress before the middle of next week.

At 9 points, Sanford’s margin of victory Tuesday was decisive enough that the certificate-of-election formalities could have been overlooked and he could have flown to Washington to become the new Republican House member for South Carolina’s coastal Lowcountry. Instead, he spent much of Wednesday working to make sure part of his past would not put an immediate crimp on his future.

Full story

April 11, 2013

Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford: 2 Paths to Redemption

weiner041113 445x321 Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford: 2 Paths to Redemption

Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 and is now considering a bid for mayor of New York City. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

To their fans, the comeback drives of first Mark Sanford and now Anthony Weiner are happy signs that the American electorate is willing to embrace redemption. To their detractors, such ambitions are evidence that shame has lost its rightful place on the roster of politically effective motivators.

Either way, their stories are absolutely fascinating to the people who watched them launch their congressional careers in the 1990s, when their futures seemed almost limitless, then crash because they suffered from a pair of all-too-familiar politicians’ problems: believing in their own personal infallibility and not believing that the cover-up is almost always a bigger problem than the transgression.

Beyond the facts that both were driven into the political wilderness by self-generated sex scandals, both have been publicly contrite for a couple of years now and that both kept plenty of campaign cash in reserve for the moments at hand, the Sanford and Weiner stories have plenty of important differences. What makes the current comparisons doubly interesting is that those distinctions suggest the inverse of what’s likely to happen.

A review of facts would make you think Sanford, the conservative Republican, has much less of a shot at reclaiming his old House seat in South Carolina than the liberal Democrat Weiner has at realizing his lifelong dream of becoming mayor of New York City. Actually, the opposite is more the case. Sanford is the clear if not in-the-clear frontrunner in his May 7 special election, but if Weiner makes a late entry into the crowded mayoral primary field, he would be an underdog to get beyond the first round on Sept. 10 and into a runoff.

Both men were at political pinnacles when they allowed their libidos to get the best of them. Sanford remained popular at the midpoint of his second gubernatorial term in 2009, when he hid his whereabouts for six days to pursue a secret extramarital affair in Argentina. Weiner had become one of the most prominent spokesmen for House Democrats in 2011, when he denied for weeks that it was his pectorals and groin pictured in a series of texts, Tweets and emails to a variety of women.

The first difference, obviously, is that Sanford eventually admitted he was romancing a woman who was not his wife, while Weiner eventually admitted that he was sexting women he hardly knew at all.

Recovering from cuckolding your state’s first lady would seem to be a taller order than recovering from the ridicule of being revealed as a none-too-successful social media cad. But Sanford has done so, partly by becoming engaged to Maria Belén Chapur. And Weiner has not done so, partly because the combination of his surname and his behavior have been such a boon to the headline writers at the New York tabloids.

Another difference is in how the wives — each so accomplished and telegenic that it’s often said they’d make the better candidates  — reacted to their embarrassment. Jenny Sanford publicly and combatively pursued divorce. Huma Abedin privately and diligently pursued reconciliation. Being flamed by an ex-wife is undeniably a bigger campaign liability than being supported by a current wife.

Perhaps the most important differences seeming to favor Weiner’s chances for a comeback over Sanford’s, though, are their different means of political ascent, the different natures of their political base and the contrasting ways in which they sought to bring morality into the public square.

Sanford was a businessman at the vanguard of the “citizen politician” movement that helped the GOP take over the House in 1994. He railed often in his early career against the dangers of allowing hubris to envelop the career politicians. It would be reasonable to have expected the local GOP political establishment to have given him a wide berth long ago.

Weiner, by contrast, spent his whole adult life in politics; he was a congressional aide and city councilman before coming to Congress in 1998. And so it would be reasonable to suspect the city’s Democratic bosses would have stuck by him, in private if not in public.

Beyond that, the South Carolina coast is a reliably Republican place where the “culture wars” aren’t close, where old-line Christian virtues are still in vogue and where Sanford was eager to cultivate all of that with discussions of his own social conservatism. Queens is more Democratic, socially liberal and Jewish, and Weiner never had all that much to say in those neighborhoods about the hot button morality issues of the day. In short, Sanford was much more obviously vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy than was Weiner.

And yet it’s much more likely that Sanford can hike all the way back from the Appalachian Trail than that Weiner will be allowed in the locker room of the House gym. The would-be-congressman-again seems likelier to find patron saints in Newt Gingrich and David Vitter than the would-be mayor will in Bill Clinton.

The “god of second chances” may be a bipartisan deity — yet without sufficient power to conquer the phenomenon of all politics being local.

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