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Posts in "Scandalous"
August 5, 2014
Richard M. Nixon’s fate was effectively sealed 40 years ago today. It’s a curious coincidence at the start of an August recess when the extraordinarily serious matter of presidential impeachment is going to be tossed around in such a cavalier and cynical manner.
In the current era of partisan gamesmanship and governmental gridlock, it’s understandably difficult to comprehend what a genuine constitutional crisis feels like. But there is no doubt that’s what steadily swelled toward its climax on Aug. 5, 1974.
That Monday afternoon, Nixon made public transcripts of three conversations he’d had with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman just six days after the June 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. The move ended parallel standoffs — between the president and Congress and between the president and federal prosecutors — that had festered for two weeks, even after the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon could not claim executive privilege and had to fork over the records subpoenaed for the Watergate cover-up trial. The House Judiciary Committee had also been stiff-armed after issuing similar subpoenas on the way to approving its three articles of impeachment, with solid bipartisan support, in July.
Beyond breaking the separation-of-powers fever, the transcripts provided all the evidence necessary to bring Nixon’s presidency to a dramatically swift end. His words, preserved on what came to be known as the “smoking gun” tape, left no doubt he had personally launched a criminal conspiracy. The president had effectively ordered the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, agreeing that top CIA officials should be instructed to pressure the FBI to halt its investigation of the crime on cooked-up “national security” grounds.
Within hours, Nixon’s tenuous wall of congressional support crumbled. All 10 Republicans who had voted against impeachment in committee said they would vote on the floor for at least the article alleging obstruction of justice. (The other charges were abuse of presidential power and contempt of Congress.) Senior Republican senators were dispatched to inform the president he could not count on more than 15 votes for acquittal at a Senate trial. Nixon chose instead to resign, announcing that decision Thursday night and leaving office the morning of Friday, Aug. 9.
The anxiety of that sustained constitutional impasse — capped by a president who had proclaimed “I am not a crook” quitting after being forced to reveal he really was one — is seared in the memories of everyone on the Hill who lived through it. (The most recent reminder was the July 29 death, at age 89, of former Rep. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, who as a freshman on Judiciary conceded he broke down and wept after becoming among the first committee Republican to announce support for impeachment.)
But Watergate also was the formative national trauma for anyone who arrived in Congress from the 1970s through the 1990s, the generations who still hold sway over the national debate. For those politicians, regardless of ideology, Nixon’s forced resignation ranks with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as the dates in their lives that most live in infamy.
The desire to prevent a repeat of the Nixon drama helped prompt Democrats, just 12 years later, to quickly quash calls for President Ronald Reagan’s impeachment, despite solid evidence he violated the law and misled Congress in the Iran-Contra affair. Similar sentiment fueled the Senate’s never-in-doubt, bipartisan 1999 acquittal of President Bill Clinton on the House GOP’s charges that he should lose his job for lying to a grand jury and otherwise trying to cover up his affair with West Wing intern Monica Lewinsky. A decade later, Democrats made clear they had no interest in spending the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency prosecuting him for launching the Iraq War under suspect pretenses.
In that context, this summer’s casual talk sounds astonishing. Full story
July 14, 2014
Whatever happened to that summer blockbuster, the one about terrorism and scandal that would be must-see congressional TV?
Don’t expect to be able to tune in to the Benghazi hearings anytime soon. No air date for the premiere has been announced, because the pre-production work is off to a deliberately slow start.
The reason is that the impresario, Rep. Trey Gowdy, is much more experienced as a prosecutor than as an executive producer. And district attorneys, at least as much as studio moguls, are trained to refrain from going public if they have any doubt about their work being ready for prime time.
For reasons both procedural and political, Gowdy has reached a conclusion 10 weeks after he was handed the gavel of a newly created select House committee: The moment is not nearly ripe for the panel to convene in the open to talk about any events before, during or after Sept. 11, 2012, the night when terrorists overran the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Libya’s second biggest city and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
During his first two terms, Gowdy has gained notoriety as one of Republicans’ most tenacious inquisitors of administration officials, a skill honed during his previous 16 years busting bad guys in South Carolina. His reputation for public zealotry aside, Gowdy understands how caution behind the scenes is the prosecutorial standard.
Many more criminal cases are settled with tidy plea bargains than with of roll-of-the-dice jury trials, and dozens of depositions are taken behind closed doors for every witness cross-examined in open court. The analogue on Capitol Hill is that a whole lot more fact-finding gets done by professional committee investigators away from cameras than by lawmakers posturing in front of them.
Besides, pursuing the inquiry for a while longer before any hearings works to the Republicans’ strategic advantage in several ways.
July 8, 2014
In the short term, anyway, the tide of good news seems to have turned in favor of Robert Menendez.
Officials in his old New Jersey congressional district named an elementary school for the Senate Foreign Relations chairman a few months ago. Then the Democrat celebrated his 60th birthday by announcing his engagement (in the Rotunda) to Alicia Mucci, a 45-year-old widowed constituent he’d met at a fundraiser.
But the best publicity Menendez has enjoyed all year arrived Monday, when the Washington Post reported on evidence the Cuban government may have fabricated and planted the lurid story that has smudged the senator’s reputation since just before his 2012 re-election bid. Menendez crowed to CNN Tuesday that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the regime in Havana had concocted the smear he had hired several underage Dominican prostitutes — because, he said, it “would do anything it can to stop me.”
What all the righteous indignation and melodramatic skullduggery obscures, however, is that Menendez continues to face questions about behavior that’s far more legally and politically problematic than the already substantially discredited tales about his cavorting at sex parties in the Caribbean.
For nearly two years, the Justice Department has been investigating whether Menendez illegally used his congressional office to benefit the business interests of his most generous donors, particularly Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. The Senate Ethics Committee appears to have put its similar inquiry on hold in deference to the Feds.
If federal prosecutors end up alleging Menendez broke the law, that would be a much bigger deal for the already dismal ethical reputation of Congress — as well as for the Democratic Party and Latino community — than whether an antagonistic nation was able to make headway with an ambitious conspiracy to ruin an influential lawmaker.
May 28, 2014
Updated, 3:20 p.m. | With public hearings still weeks away, it’s too soon to fairly predict whether a purely political show trial or a riveting investigatory breakthrough is in store from the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi.
But it’s not too early to look at the cast of characters who make up the panel’s membership for clues about what each side has in mind. (Check out our handy cheat sheet.)
In some aspects, the makeup of the parties’ rosters is fundamentally different, in ways that make clear the Republicans are planning to be on offense from the outset while the Democrats are going to dig in to play defense. In other areas, the group is a reminder of the stark biographical differences between the two caucuses. But in a few ways, the committee’s characteristics are curiously different from the House as a whole.
Most consequentially, while one out of every eight districts nationwide is at least somewhat politically competitive at the moment, no one on the select committee sits in one. All 12 are virtually certain to win re-election in November. That means none of them has any short-term political need to adopt the role of evenhanded inquisitor, because none needs to play it down the middle to appeal to the swing voters who could decide their fate.
On the contrary, the Republicans have been given an opportunity to fortify their conservative bases by taking on the Obama administration as forcefully as possible, just as the Democrats have been afforded a way to appeal to their liberal bases by adopting a “Let’s move on, there’s nothing to see here” approach. Full story
May 5, 2014
For those lulled into thinking the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has devolved into nothing more than an over-the-top Hollywood-D.C. mashup schmooze fest, one small scene offered a reminder of how real congressional business can get done in the least likely places.
While the gawking was focused on celebrities like the drummer Questlove and the actor Freida Pinto, three prominent Republicans huddled near the bar at one Saturday evening reception: pollster and messaging savant Frank Luntz, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Trey Gowdy, a conservative second-termer from South Carolina who’s about to take his first step into the national spotlight.
Their body language made clear the conversation was serious, so glad-handers should please stand clear. Still, it’s safe to assume the talk touched on the House GOP leadership’s decision to reverse course and establish a select House committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Monday that Gowdy would be the chairman, because he’s “as dogged, focused and serious-minded as they come.”
For the Republicans, creating the panel is a high-reward as well as a high-risk proposition. On the one hand, its hearings are guaranteed to excite and solidify the party’s conspiratorial and conservative base right through the campaign season, while forcing the White House to keep playing defense on another high-profile front and making life particularly unpleasant for Hillary Rodham Clinton (who was secretary of State during the attack) just as she’s deciding whether to run for president in 2016.
On the other hand, its work will subject the GOP to criticism that perpetuating congressional interest in an incident that eight Hill committees have already hashed over is an especially wrong focus in this election year, which should be about promoting policies to put more people to work at home instead of more costly political theatrics about a foreign policy foul-up.
But for the House’s newest would-be chairman, the next six months represent a career-altering opportunity with more potential upsides than downsides. Full story
May 4, 2014
A voice vote in the House usually means the proposal is genuinely beyond reasonable opposition, despite today’s very low bar for rancorous discord.
That was the case last week on an amendment to reduce Capitol maintenance by $500,000 next year and instead spend the money on enhancing sexual harassment training for members and their aides.
In (yet another) election year when Democrats will accuse Republicans of “waging a war on women” at almost every turn, there was immediate bipartisan agreement on this much: Congress could stand to allocate a little less for floor wax and light bulbs in order to do a better job informing its employees what their rights are, the many forms of inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace and where to turn if they are harassed by colleagues or superiors — including their elected bosses.
Still, it was something of a surprise that no member demanded a roll call vote, which would have meant someone insisting on going on record against an idea seemingly above reproach. Surely some anti-regulatory Republican conservative in a safe district would be ready to take the political risk — especially after hearing the ranking Democrat on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, declare that the language was written “to provide mandatory sexual harassment training for all congressional offices in the House.”
But that isn’t what the language says. It does not create any mandate for members. Unless the provision is strengthened by the Senate or in conference, there can be no headline declaring, “Lawmakers must undergo training to prevent sexual harassment.” Full story
April 9, 2014
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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