Much that’s wrong with Congress was well-illustrated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s inability to answer a straightforward question about the ethical lapses of one of her most powerful members.
Elizabeth Vargas of ABC News asked Pelosi on Sunday whether House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel should have known it was a violation of ethics rules to accept Caribbean trips paid for by special interests. Here’s the exchange:
Vargas: The Ethics Committee on Charles Rangel said that he has violated the House gift rule.
Vargas: How can he remain in such a powerful position as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee?
Pelosi: Well, I think —
Vargas: Given the fact that there are further pending ethics investigations and this public admonishment has taken place.
Pelosi: Well, it is a public admonishment. It said he did not knowingly violate House rules. So that gives him some comfort. But the fact is that we have a —
Vargas: He should have known though, don’t you think?
Pelosi: Well, I don’t know.
So the House speaker — who promised on Election Day 2006 to lead “the most honest, the most open, the most ethical Congress in history” — doesn’t know today whether the chairman of the tax-writing committee in the lower chamber should be aware that it’s against congressional ethics rules to let a special interest buy his airplane ticket to the Caribbean? This is the same House speaker who promised in 2006 to “drain the swamp” in Congress left by Republican corruption, such as golf junkets paid for by now-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients? And this is the same House speaker who presided over the Democrats’ much-ballyhooed congressional ethics reforms in 2007, including a specific ban on members accepting trips paid for by special interests?
For Pelosi and Rangel to claim ignorance of the rules as a defense for having broken them is shocking, especially for private citizens who cannot plead the same excuse. There is one context, however, in which the ignorance plea might make sense. Rangel is being investigated on multiple allegations of ethical misconduct. Perhaps he could argue he lost track of which ethics rule he was violating as he lounged on that Caribbean beach.
Pelosi and Rangel are hereby referred to blogger Main Street Radical’s helpful hint for how to know when you are breaking House ethics rules: “If you find yourself in the Caribbean, look in your wallet. If you realize that you are not paying for anything, it might be an ethics violation. Your only other options are that somebody else is paying your way or you’ve sprouted fairy wings.”