Note to new members: Conduct still matters
Every class of newly elected lawmakers promises to be the one to change Washington — and every class inevitably falls short of that goal. As the incoming freshman members prepare to settle into their new offices, they should keep in mind that their constituents will be watching more than their voting records; they’ll be keeping an eye on their conduct too.
While both parties continue to debate the meaning of the last election, one thing is clear: Voters don’t look kindly on corruption in the capital, and are willing to take matters into their own hands. While there were some notable exceptions, many of the most ethically challenged lawmakers lost their bids for reelection.
Perhaps the clearest example is the case of outgoing Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), who initially won his seat despite being the subject of criminal investigations by numerous federal and state agencies. This cycle, Rivera fronted a shadow candidate in the Democratic primary for his seat in an effort to weaken his likely challenger. The numerous reports of FBI and state investigations into Rivera’s role in a scam that seemed more like fodder for pulp fiction than the campaign trail led to his ouster. Moral: Even in the rough and tumble world of political campaigns, not everything goes.
Elsewhere across the country, voters in Rep. Laura Richardson’s (D-Calif.) district sent her packing just three months after the full House reprimanded her for misusing official resources. First-term Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), plagued by questions about his failure to pay child support, tax liens and a condominium foreclosure, lost his seat to Democratic war hero Tammy Duckworth. And in one of the most high-profile and expensive races in the country, Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley narrowly lost her Senate bid after both Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and her Republican opponent Dean Heller — citing research from CREW’s Most Corrupt Members of Congress report — repeatedly attacked her for intervening to save a kidney transplant center in which her husband had a financial interest.
What can incoming members learn from these scandals? You might get away with mistreating staff or petty corruption, but you definitely can’t get away with both. Personal conduct counts, so pay your bills and treat your former spouses and partners decently. In addition — and this one frequently seems to be overlooked — lawmakers are elected to represent their constituents’ interests, not those of family members and top donors.
Of course, corruption doesn’t always tank a career. This year, several members held on to their seats despite serious ethics questions.
On Staten Island, where Hurricane Sandy overshadowed all other issues, voters reelected Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who remains the target of a federal investigation into his allegedly illegal fundraising practices. Florida voters reelected Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan after his former business partner and several employees testified about his alleged role in a conduit contribution scheme. And in New Jersey, voters returned Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews for a 13th term, even as the House Ethics Committee continues to investigate allegations he used campaign funds for personal expenses.
If pollsters continually find ethics to be a significant concern for voters — as they did before the November election — why don’t all ethically challenged candidates lose?
First, both parties have proven shamelessly opportunistic and unwilling to take a hard line against corruption within their own caucuses. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who promised a “zero tolerance” policy for ethics violations, raised money for Grimm and anointed Buchanan as the Republicans’ chief fundraiser at the National Republican Campaign Committee. On the other side of the aisle, no one has raised a peep about Andrews’s or Berkley’s ethical woes.
Second, gerrymandering has insulated many House members from serious electoral competition. For example, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), the anti-abortion, “pro-family” doctor-turned-congressman who engaged in sexual relationships with at least two patients while serving as their treating physician, and even pressured one to have an abortion, managed to keep his seat in a safe Republican district.
Finally, in the post-Citizens United political landscape, those who fund super PACs and dark money groups have an outsize influence on congressional elections. The money Sheldon Adelson dumped into American Crossroads to air nearly constant ads harping on Berkley’s ethical issues surely helped secure her defeat. In races without big-money interests aligned against a candidate, however, voters may not have heard much about their representatives’ transgressions.
So while it is not all good news, 11 of the 31 members of Congress named in CREW’s Most Corrupt report during the 2012 election cycle have been defeated or are retiring. This suggests incoming members seeking to avoid the fates of those toppled by ethics scandals would be wise to hold themselves to high ethical standards.