Ethics became a major issue for Democrats in their takeover-and-consolidation of Congress in the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, and it looks like the issue won't go away: Only difference is, of course, now the Democrats are the ones running the show -- and have to be held accountable for bad behavior.
Guess what? It's not quite working out that way. So, as ethical and judgment problems arise, younger Democrats seem ready to challenge veterans -- either electorally or procedurally -- to force the party into taking the high road.
Item: Six-term incumbent Sen. Chris Dodd is a walking ethics headache. He's under scrutiny on several fronts: First, there are questions of whether he got a sweetheart mortgage deal from Countrywide Financial -- a firm implicated in the sub-prime mortgage mess.
Second, there's the relationship between Dodd and a disgraced Bear Stearns exec in the purchase of Dodd's vacation home in Ireland.
Third, Dodd had changing stories related to what he knew and when with respect to the approval of bonuses to AIG executives. Countrywide, Bear Stearns and AIG? Talk about hitting the trifecta in the financial meltdown! Apparently, Edelman was unavailable to Dodd at the time.
Already facing challenges from two Republican candidates, Sen. Chris Dodd now faces an apparent primary fight from Clinton White House alum, businessman and military vet Merrick Alpert. And ethics is the sword that Alpert appears like wielding against Dodd:
"You deserve a senator who tells you the truth and focuses on protecting your job and rebuilding Connecticut's economy," Alpert said in a video announcement. "Like many of you, I've lost faith in Senator Dodd. While he served his state well in the past, that's not so lately.
"He doesn't represent Connecticut's values anymore," said Alpert. "He represents the values of Washington, DC."
Item: Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) has been as problematic an ethics story in the House as Dodd has in the Senate. In the latest story, Murtha's nephew Robert has been the recipient of millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts. The younger Murtha happily boasted of his connections to get the contracts:
One message advises a partner that a condition for “keeping funds flowing” mandates that part of the contract money, approved through Representative Murtha’s powerful defense appropriations subcommittee, be channeled to companies in Johnstown, Pa., his uncle’s home district. “This has been a requirement for what I do to get dollars through,” Robert Murtha declared.
Last fall, the FBI raided the offices of the now-shut down PMA Group, a firm owned by a former Murtha staffer. PMA poured millions to Murtha campaigns -- while Murtha ended up directing millions in "earmarks" to PMA and its clients.
This has created something of a bipartisan generational movement to start getting things cleaned up. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was a thorn in the side of his fellow Republicans when "culture of corruption" was the watchword against the GOP Congress. He's continuing it now that the Democrats are in power. Flake is demanding that the House Ethics Committee probe the relationship between PMA and appropriations earmarks. So far, the Democratic leadership has gotten its members to vote against Flake's proposal. Since Democrats are in the majority, the measure has been voted down.
But, as Politico notes, younger Democrats are bucking their elders:
When the House took up Flake’s resolution Tuesday night, Democrats once again voted overwhelmingly to table it. But the 29 Democratic votes the measure got this week was the highest tally yet — and further evidence of a generational divide that’s pitting newer House members who want to “drain the swamp” against veteran members who don’t want to see their colleagues investigated.
So far, the younger members are getting trounced — but the momentum is in their favor.
Despite the directives from Van Hollen and Clyburn, two more Democrats voted for Flake’s resolution Tuesday, and they are the two newest Democrats in the House: Rep. Scott Murphy of New York and Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois.
“This is who I am,” Quigley, an outspoken reformer from a safe seat in Chicago, told POLITICO afterward. “You can’t change your DNA when you get here.”
Recently elected Democrats worry that their party is at increasing risk of looking hypocritical for winning elections by promising to clean up Congress and then refusing to do so once comfortably in office.
The younger Democrats are right: Republicans got into the same trouble -- not policing members when they had the chance. Politics abhors a vacuum. If there isn't self-policing, the opposition will arise from the other side. Instead of a problem involving an individual, it becomes an institutional issue -- or at the very least, an issue involving one caucus over the other.
Maybe the younger Democrats might want to inquire of the new Democrat in the White House to see whether he supports their desire to "drain the swamp." That might wake up a few other Democrats.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.